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The Essential Guide to Learning Japanese with Children’s Picture Books

What was your favorite picture book when you were a kid?

Now that you’re here studying Japanese from the ground up , wouldn’t it be great if you had something like your favorite picture book that could help with your Japanese?

Japanese 絵本 (えほん – picture book[s]) might be written for kids, but they’re fantastic study tools for beginning to lower-intermediate Japanese learners of all ages.

In this post, we’ll look at some of the benefits of using 絵本, how to use them to study and five choice titles to help you get started.

Why Use Japanese Picture Books to Practice Japanese Reading?

They’re artistic, creative and entertaining., they can improve your pronunciation and reading speed., they feature shorter sentences and emphasize key content words., they’re great for boosting basic japanese vocabulary., you’ll learn more about japanese society and culture., a simple method for learning japanese from 絵本, 5 classic picture books to power up your japanese reading skills, ぐりとぐら (guri and gura), しろくまちゃんのほっとけーき (shirokuma-chan’s pancakes), だるまちゃんとてんぐちゃん (little daruma and little tengu), かいけつゾロリシリーズ (the kaiketsu zorori series), 美しい数学シリーズ (the utsukushii suugaku series).

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Before we get into book recommendations, let’s talk a little bit about the benefits of using Japanese picture books as study tools. There are some key skill areas that can be improved by reading these books, and you’ll need to identify them in order to target them.

It’s akin to watching Japanese anime shows and reading  manga  to study Japanese . 絵本 typically feature かわいい (cute) characters, many of which are totally bonkers! For example, one book I read with my daughter recently, ほっぺおばけ (cheek ghosts), is about ghosts who dine on people’s cheeks! Because Japanese 絵本 are so light and fun, reading them feels less like “study” and more like educational leisure time – which is exactly what we want study to be!

Because 絵本 are generally written for children who are just getting accustomed to the Japanese language, they focus heavily on natural rhythm and intonation as well as tricky sounds for kids, like ちゃ and っ.

Content words are 名詞 [めいし – nouns] and 動詞 [どうし – verbs]. This makes it easier for you to skim to get the main idea. Skimming is a skill that will come in handy as your Japanese develops and you tackle things like 漫画 (まんが – comics)   and the JLPT. Use 絵本 as a way to hone this skill moving forward! The only potential drawback is that 絵本 are usually written in ひらがな. If you’re looking to improve your reading speed while also reinforcing your basic 漢字 (かんじ) recognition, you may want to look elsewhere. This blog post is a great place to begin your search for  kanji  learning resources

絵本 use common words and phrases which are essential for achieving fluency in everyday Japanese . They’re a great way to fill in any gaps you may have in your basic vocabulary .

Reading Japanese 絵本 will help boost your cultural knowledge  in all kinds of ways. 絵本 often center around fundamentals of Japanese culture which their main readers – kids – need to know about. They might be legends, characters, places or even aspects of society such as 和 (わ – harmony, friendship). There are also picture book versions of classic Japanese stories – 昔話 (むかしばなし – folk tales). These stories are still read and loved by Japanese of all generations. Knowing them will help you relate to your Japanese friends or language exchange partners even better!

All of these benefits make Japanese 絵本 excellent tools for your Japanese studies.

The first time, skim the book. Read it as silently and quickly as you can. Try to focus on the most important words in the sentences. If you run into words you don’t know, don’t stop to look them up! Power on through and do your best to understand the main idea and some important details.

Next, read it again out loud . This helps you make sure you understood the story right the first time around. This is also very good for pronunciation practice. Focus on getting your pronunciation, rhythm and intonation correct. Pause only where appropriate. And don’t be afraid to go back over sentences or passages that were hard to navigate with your tongue – repetition is essential for building fluency ! One good tip that has worked for me is to record myself reading the book, play it back a few times, take note of my pronunciation and then try again.

Then, take note of any new words or phrases that you’d like to remember. There may be a lot of new vocabulary words for you depending on the difficulty of the book. It’s not necessary to remember them all. Just focus on the essentials, the ones that you’ll be most likely to use or see again in the near future. Record the words in a notebook or a note-taking application on your phone and review them until you’ve internalized them. Take it even one step further by writing original sentences with your words and repeating them out loud!

Another wonderful thing about 絵本 is that they’re relatively short. You can read them anytime you want. So, after you’ve gone through the steps above, go back to the book whenever you have a chunk of time you can kill with some Japanese study. This is a great way to review the words and phrases you learned and also build your confidence. Note how much faster and smoother you’re able to read the story compared to the first time. You’ll probably be amazed by how much better you understand it!

If you’re keen to explore the world of Japanese 絵本, 絵本ナビ/ehonNavi is the best place to start. 絵本ナビ is an online picture book retailer based in Japan with tens of thousands of 絵本 in its catalog. You can search books by sales ranking, review ranking and even by age group! They also have hundreds of books available in full online. Users can do 試し読み (ためしよみ), or sample reading sessions, for free. You have to create a free user account to access these sample books (registration only takes a minute) and can read each sample book only once.

And if you like learning Japanese with fun, authentic materials like these picture books, you’ll love FluentU .

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Below are five Japanese 絵本 to get you started with your reading practice. All of the titles below have remained popular with Japanese of all ages for many years. They’re available at 絵本ナビ and other retailers, and if you live in Japan or a large city, you’ll probably be able to find them at your public library, too.

Now, on to the books! Keep in mind that each of these titles is targeted towards a different age group and reading level.

5 classic picture books to power up japanese

ぐりand ぐらare two mice who, in their travels, come across a huge egg. Naturally, this gives them the idea to make a gigantic cake that will last a long, long time! First published in 1963, ぐりとぐら is arguably the best-known Japanese children’s picture book ever. Chances are good that any Japanese person you ever meet will have read it – or will at least have heard of it. It has been translated into several languages and eventually spun off into a full-on series of 絵本.

5 classic picture books to power up japanese

If you like pancakes and adorable bears, then しろくまちゃんのほっとけーき should be right up your alley. The tale is a simple one: little Shirokuma asks his mother to make pancakes for him and then she does! しろくまちゃんのほっとけーき is a great book for learning onomatopoeia. Part of the book is devoted to the sounds of mother cooking the pancakes. Lots of cool vocabulary is introduced!

5 classic picture books to power up japanese

Two traditional Japanese characters, the Daruma and the Tengu, are made cute and fun in this children’s classic. Little Daruma-chan is envious of Tengu-chan’s possessions, like his 扇子 (せんす – fan) and his 下駄 (げた- wooden clogs). Daruma-chan’s father, trying to make him feel better, does his best to scrounge up these things for his son but is not always successful. だるまちゃんとてんぐちゃん also became a successful book series and has been published in English.

5 classic picture books to power up japanese

Zorori is a fox and a wanted criminal whose only ambition is to become the world’s greatest prankster. He travels from place to place with this goal in mind, but his mischievous ways end up getting him and his friends into trouble more often than not. The かいけつゾロリ series, as of this blog plot’s publication, is comprised of over 50 titles. That being said, it’s hard to recommend just one. Don’t worry though, any one of them is a good place to start. The Zorori books are full of humor since Zorori himself often speaks in crazy Japanese だじゃれ (puns).

5 classic picture books to power up japanese

Another famous series loved by both children and adults alike is the 美しい数学 (うつくしいすうがく) series. The books in this series are famed for their simple stories, gorgeous artwork and unique ability to subtly stoke a love of numbers in those who read them – even the most math-resistant! These are great books to both build your vocabulary and your skills with the Japanese number system. Among the titles in this series, 壺の中(つぼのなか – English title: Anno’s Mysterious Multiplying Jar ) is particularly well-regarded for its amazing pictures.

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picture books in japanese

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picture books in japanese

Garden Treasures (Niwa no Takaramono)

How to find nature and enjoy each time of year, introduced in heartwarming illustrations, following the seasons from the start of spring. From parks and roadside trees to flower shops—an illustrated book of discovering, observing, and connecting with the nature that’s all around you each and every day.

picture books in japanese

Sneakily Tiptoeing Forward!

These books are insanely popular! In this fourth installment of Blendy’s “explore with your finger picture books,” will little Domo find his way home?! Enjoy following the twisty roads with your finger time and time again. You’re sure to find an entirely new world every time you open this imaginative picture book.

picture books in japanese

With My Imaginary Friend (Imajinari Furendo to)

A unique “autobiography,” from the standpoint of a child’s imaginary friend. This is the story of growing up—a heartwarming and cleverly drawn fantasy on the realistic mysteries of life.

picture books in japanese

The Night-Go-Round

An exhausted boy makes his way to bed. But the instant he falls fast asleep, he’s taken to a strange place... One can’t help getting pulled into the frightening yet humorous atmosphere of the artwork.

picture books in japanese

Can You See What I See? Puzzle Magic

A magical new world, masterfully crafted with mirrors and optical illusions. Original edition, first published in Japan. In addition to Seymour and his dog, Buttons, beloved characters of the Can You See What I See? series, this book features Lucky, the beckoning cat.

picture books in japanese

Sweet Potato Wife (Satsuma Imo Oku-san)

Pulled from the ground with a cry of “hey!” a sweet potato gloriously tumbles through the air and over the sea. Just where did she land? With its fun, nonsensical situations, this is the perfect book to read aloud.

picture books in japanese

Oto, the Lovebird: Then and Now

It has been 12 years since photographer Go Murahigashi first introduced Oto-chan to the world. Feeling that the little parrot will only grow older and eventually pass on before him, Go has turned to his camera once again. This is an eagerly awaited photobook of Oto-chan’s most precious moments, captured with continuous warmth and sincerity.

picture books in japanese

Takoyaki Takosaburo

“Let me go out!!” comes the voice of a little octopus ball, much to the surprise of the street food vendor—little takoyaki Takosaburo must set out on an adventure due to unavoidable circumstances! A fun, methodical book, written in the style of a traditional Japanese narrative folk song.

picture books in japanese

Our Song (Bokutachi no Uta)

Artist Yuko Yamaki has transcribed a vivid image of the music one can hear when listening to nature throughout the four seasons. A score utilizing this lively concept and written by a young composer of just 8 years old, is also included at the end of the book. This is a picture book in which imagery and music resonate as one.

picture books in japanese

Bath Jump—1… 2… 3!

As soon as Mo says “I’m going in first!” animals start counting off one-by-one— “I’m number 2!” “I’m number 3!”—as they splash into the tub. A super fun book of play comparing 100 animals!

picture books in japanese

Learning Through Play: World Picture Book

Life necessities, salutations, play, school, culture, and customs—learning the world while comparing all that kids hold dear, with 1,200 photographs and illustrations over 84 different themes. Special perk : a flag book of a tiny-tiny world that kids can make themselves!

picture books in japanese

A Very Cold Penguin

He’s a very chilly penguin. How in the world can he warm up? Not even a scarf will do the trick. Whether he makes a fire or goes ice skating, there’s just nothing to be done. Will he ever find someplace warm?

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Reading 絵本 (Ehon) – Japanese Picture Books as a Japanese Learner Yes, You Can Be a Child Again (Or at Least Read Children’s Books)

May 10, 2022 • words written by Sarah Bush • Art by Kanae Nakamine and Aya Francisco

When I lived in Tokyo, my friend and I would often take long meandering walks adventuring around the city and often ended up in bookstores. While he tended to gravitate toward the educational textbooks, I somehow always ended up in the children's section. Something about the shelves full of picture books just seemed so inviting to me.

I don't care how many kanji you know, it can be daunting to try and read even a novella in Japanese. If there aren't any illustrations, it's just you and the text — there are no other contextual cues to rely on. But with children's books, I didn't feel like reading them would be an overwhelming challenge from the start, and I felt accomplished reading a whole book (no matter how short or how many pictures).

However, just because children's books are for children doesn't mean they're necessarily easy to read for those studying Japanese as a foreign language. In this article, I'll discuss why children's books can be a great resource for Japanese-language learners, as well as some of the inherent challenges to watch out for. I'll also recommend some genres of books that adult learners of Japanese might enjoy and suggest where to find your own books.

絵本 (Ehon): Japanese Picture Books

Pictures provide context clues, unlike manga, it's not all dialogue, you can set small but achievable goals, learn about japanese culture, and… they're simply so much fun, child-centric vocabulary, grammar the textbooks don't teach you, no kanji… can be a little challenging, it can be harder to find a book at your level (than graded readers), むかし話: traditional folktales, 図鑑・事典: encyclopedia, where to find japanese picture books, ready to enjoy some japanese picture books.

When you hear "children's books," the first thing that might come to mind is the classic picture book. But there are also easy readers, chapter books, middle grade, young adult, and a ton of other related categories of books aimed toward early readers. For example, The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Harry Potter are both children's books, but they are quite different in terms of level, length, and the amount of pictures.

Ehon are illustrated stories for children in which the text and images are integrated, and generally work together to tell a story.

For this article, however, the focus will be narrowed to picture books, or 絵本 (ehon). So what exactly can be considered ehon? To put it simply, ehon are illustrated stories for children in which the text and images are integrated, and generally work together to tell a story. It might seem obvious, but to consider the previous examples, The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a picture book but Harry Potter is not. I know, I know, but what about the illustrated version of Harry Potter ? No, still not a picture book, because the narrative does not rely on images on every page to help further the story and engage the reader — who, in the case of a picture book, is often being read to, not reading the book themselves. But for the sake of the resources I will introduce in this article, any book that is heavily-illustrated, from children's stories to encyclopedia-type specialty books known as 図鑑 (zukan) will be referred to as a "picture book."

Why Read Japanese Picture Books?

There's a reason I gravitated towards the picture books in Japanese bookstores — it was like the candy aisle in the grocery store. Amongst long rows of study guides and harried students, management tomes and surly salarymen, and "easy" cookbooks and the heavy mantle of my own failures, the children's section beckoned like a warm hug. It was a microcosm of bright colors, cozied with charmingly tiny tables and chairs, the shelves stuffed with titles I could actually read — or at least more or less figure out from the cover art.

Beyond the welcoming atmosphere of the children's section, as a Japanese language learner I also enjoy reading children's books because they feel more approachable. If you're still not convinced, here are a few more reasons to try them out.

Especially for those at a lower level who are still learning to read in Japanese, pictures can be a game changer.

For one, you can't take it for granted that they visually make it more appealing and approachable. Compared to something that's text-only, pictures certainly lower the emotional hurdle of picking up a book and starting to read. Reading children's books doesn't feel like studying, even.

Learning new words from picture books can help you gain a better understanding of their nuance, and provide concrete examples of how and when they're typically used in context.

Pictures can also provide context to not only help you read, but read between the lines as well. In fact, research has shown that the combination of text with graphics like pictures or diagrams facilitates reading comprehension. 1 Images can help you understand words you may not know, and give you additional information about how to interpret the text. This means that pictures can also help you learn new words and phrases without translations. Learning through pictures is a more direct and intuitive approach than, say books with parallel translations. While learning new words through translation is a common approach for language learners (like flashcards), learning new words from picture books can help you gain a better understanding of their nuance, and provide concrete examples of how and when they're typically used in context, which is something direct translations can't always archieve.

But why all this talk about picture books when you could just go and pick up some manga? Based on this criteria, they should be perfect reading material, right? Full of pictures, perhaps a little longish but not too text-heavy, Japanese culture savvy, and of course super fun!

Dialogue tries to replicate how people actually talk, and can be very informal and often colloquial.

Don't get me wrong, I love manga. But manga can be difficult for a few reasons, and some of the big ones are related to the fact that the stories are mainly told through dialogue. Of course, this dialogue tries to replicate how people actually talk, and can be very informal and often colloquial. On top of that, spoken Japanese can require you to pick up on a lot of subtext, since things like subjects are often omitted. All of this together means that manga can generally be difficult for beginner and even intermediate learners to understand.

You'll find some of these challenges also apply to picture books, but because the stories are generally told through narrative text instead of nearly exclusively through dialogue, I find they can be easier to digest. While the stories in manga can also get really complicated really fast, the stories you find in picture books are shorter and not overly-complex — after all, they are geared toward children.

You can read — and finish — them faster.

As a second-language learner, I often find that trying to tackle a longer book or a novel to be daunting, and the pressure to finish can be deinsentivising. That's why I’m a big proponent of setting smaller, more achievable goals to stay motivated to read. Because picture books are on the shorter side, you can read — and finish — them faster. I always feel a warm sense of accomplishment when I've finished reading a book in Japanese, and it doesn't really matter if it's a novel, a chapter book, or a thirty-page picture book.

Thinking about Japanese culture in a broader sense, many Japanese children's books, either explicitly or implicitly, explain or teach children about Japanese culture and how to be a part of Japanese society.

You can use picture books to learn what Japanese children learn that becomes part of the collective common knowledge.

Think about all the stories you hear and ideas you pick up as a children that go into your understanding of your culture and how to be a part of it: fairy tales and songs, stories about famous people and events, characters that are part of a shared cultural memory, what you can expect to see and do in different places, expectations about how you should act. You can use picture books to learn what Japanese children learn that becomes part of the collective common knowledge — for instance, the song Donguri Korokoro, who Kaguyahime and Urashima Tarō are, what you might do in the springtime, and how to work together with a group.

Picture books can help you learn not only some foundational aspects of Japanese culture, but can also be a kind of backdoor to understanding a Japanese point of view!

Perhaps the best part of reading Japanese picture books is that they are fun. And cute, and bright, and charming, and just plain lovely.

Even if you were never a big fan of reading to begin with, or if you've developed an emotional allergy over the years of trying to read in Japanese, just like Harry Potter inspired non-readers to find the joy in reading, trying out Japanese picture books might be just what you need to jumpstart your journey into reading Japanese (again). So if it sounds like a fun idea, give it a try! It might be just what you need to motivate you to tackle something with less, or even no pictures, eventually.

Inherent Challenges of Reading Japanese Picture Books

Like I mentioned before, the children's book section beckons like the candy aisle of the bookstore. However, unfortunately not every Japanese picture book offers an effortless jaunt through candy land. So, let's quickly talk about some of the challenges so you're not surprised by a sour gummy worm when you're gobbling down on some sweet, sweet gummy bears.

As a second language learner, there are going to be some inherent challenges that come with reading books written for native speakers, even if those native speakers are children.

While the overwhelming majority of Japanese picture books are written for children who are native speakers of Japanese, if you've spent much time around children you'll know that they have a vocabulary that may not be utilized in many contexts for adults or second-language learners.

They have a vocabulary that may not be utilized in many contexts for adults or second-language learners.

For example, one of the most famous English children's stories is Pat the Bunny, but I couldn't tell you the last time I used the word "pat" or read it in a sentence that wasn't in Pat the Bunny . It's such a simple word, just three letters, but it's not even in the top 5000 words recommended for advanced learners of English by Oxford Learner's Dictionaries. 2

The same goes for Japanese picture books. For example, they often use onomatopoeia and other fun-sounding expressions that add good rhythm to the stories. ごっつんこ gottsunko , for instance, is a word used for when something bumps to something else. This is a fairly common expression for Japanese children, and while it may also be used by native-speaking adults, is not necessarily as well-known to second language learners. Learning these types of words can be a joy, but can also be a stumbling block, just like the relatively advanced grammar that might pop up.

Again, with children's books, the assumption is that the reader is a native speaker. And native speakers learn language in a completely different way compared to second language learners — textbooks have nothing on that spongy baby brain!

You might see more advanced grammatical expressions and verb tenses just casually thrown around.

So, this means that you might see more advanced grammatical expressions and verb tenses just casually thrown around, like the friendly trio causative, passive, and causative-passive. Oftentimes, even if there's some grammar you don't understand you can still get enough of the context to figure out more or less what a sentence means (this is exactly how I read a text written in classical Japanese), so don't get too discouraged!

You might also come across contractions, like 〜てる for 〜ている or 〜ちゃう for 〜てしまう, or some sound changes or other words associated with baby talk, like 〜ちゃま for 〜さま. These colloquialisms may not be in your dictionary, but you can often figure them out with a quick Google search. You can definitely give your dictionary (or at least your brain) a workout with the next challenge: missing kanji.

a page from an ehon that uses only hiragana

Many books for very young children — from toddlers to those in the first year of elementary school — often have very few kanji, or none at all. On the one hand, this means you don't need to know any kanji to start reading children's books, and you won't stumble over the meanings or readings of kanji you're not familiar with. Hurray!

On the other hand, I had no idea how much I actually relied on kanji to grasp the meaning of a sentence until my friend's toddler asked me to read him a book with zero kanji. I was pretty confident — certainly I could read Japanese better than a two year old? The answer was yes — but not without some initial hits to my dignity.

Take, for example, this picture book title: 「きょうは なんのひ?」

It's a little tricky, right? You would typically see the title written like 「今日は何の日?」, but with no kanji, it can take a minute to parse where the end of a word is, what's a particle and what's not, what the meaning of a word is… Sentences are broken up into chunks, however, often with spaces after particles, which is a lot of help.

The use of kanji is something you should look into especially when selecting a book.

Like the other challenges, this isn't a huge obstacle that can't be overcome — just something to be aware of. You may not be comfortable reading (almost) all-kana text at first, but you'll get used to it as you read. When you aren't sure, reading out loud might help you recognize a word you actually know.

Not all picture books are devoid of kanji — there are options geared toward older children and more advanced readers which you can use to practice your kanji knowledge. Just keep in mind that the use of kanji is something you should look into especially when selecting a book!

It can be harder to find a picture book that's suitable for your level.

Compared to resources like graded readers for language learners, which are categorized into levels of difficulty, it can be harder to find a picture book that's suitable for your level. Some websites like EhonNavi (which I'll talk about later) allow you to search by age, which can be an indication of difficulty level, but this can be limiting when the reading material is not tailored for language learners, specifically.

NPO Tadoku Supporter's website is a website where you can find graded readers and search for other recommended extensive-reading materials. In their database, you can search for their curated picture books . Each book is given a grade so you can find books that match your reading level. While you are on their website, be sure to check out their original graded readers too, as many are available for free — especially lower-level reads use lots of pictures, so they're like a perfect mix of picture books and graded readers!

Japanese Picture Books Genre Recommendations

After learning about the benefits and challenges of reading picture books, I hope you are up for giving them a shot. Although "Japanese picture books" sounds like a specific category of books, it actually encompasses a wide variety of genres. In case you aren't sure what to look for, or where to start, I put together a few recommendations, focusing on genres that you can learn Japanese culture from, as well as ones that I think adults can enjoy. To find or instill the joy of reading, I think it's important to pick a book about something you love or that you're at least interested in. I hope you can find something on this list that you feel excited about reading!

an assortment of mukashi banashi ehon

While classic European fairy tales are popular in Japan as well, Japan has its own traditional folktales, or むかし話 mukashi banashi , which literally translates to "stories of a long time ago." The storylines of some of these famous tales, like Momotarō , Kaguyahime , and Urashimatarō are so well-known they’ve become part of the cultural fabric of Japan — you would have a hard time finding someone that doesn't know them. In fact, it is pretty common to see or hear about the characters and references to these folktales in day-to-day life in Japan. So as a Japanese learner it's not a bad idea to expand your cultural knowledge by reading them yourself!

Just a heads-up, since folktales are stories that were traditionally passed down orally through generations, the writing style and format tend to vary between authors and publishers, even for the same story. Most Japanese folktales also feature elderly characters — ojiichan (grandfather) and/or obaachan (grandmother). Because of this, some books (that respected the authenticity of oral storytelling) might use very colloquial speech patterns characteristic of elderly characters in fiction. This can be challenging to understand for Japanese learners, so you might want to look out for these quirks when selecting a book.

a few example pages from various zukan/jiten

This is actually more of a format than a genre, but 図鑑 (zukan) and 事典 (jiten) refer to encyclopedia-type books.

For children who are learning all about new words and subjects for the first time, these are great vocabulary-builders and can provide deep-knowledge on a subject they find interesting, like bugs or fish. There are zukan and jiten of really anything, so you will probably be able to find one that's all about something you love. You might be thinking,"well, I'm not interested in any of the things children love." Okay, even though you might not be interested in dinosaurs or acorns, seriously, the variety of zukan and jiten is huge. And many have really interesting viewpoints that adults would find interesting and educational.

For example, a book called 絶滅したいきもの図鑑 (zetsumetsu shita ikimono zukan) features animals that went extinct for a kind of silly and ridiculous reason. (Like, did you know a manatee-like animal called Steller's sea cow became extinct because they were too kind!? 🤯) There are also books that feature bird beaks, the cut ends of citrus fruits, and even fish fillets.

What's good about these encyclopedia-type books is that they are formatted to parse information in an easily-digestible format instead of using long, endless paragraphs. Usually, a subject (or a group of subjects) is featured on one page. This chunking makes it easy to read or skip entire pages that might not interest you without feeling like you missed out on something integral to the non-narrative format.

As long as they are intended for children, both zukan and jiten (the terms are used almost interchangeably) are image-heavy. However, note that zukan, as the name includes 図 (which means "picture"), means "visual dictionary," so they tend to have a stronger emphasis on visuals. So, although it really depends on the book, it's not rare for zukan to have more limited text. For instance, some only list a name along the picture of the subject.

an assortment of food related ehon

There's something special about looking at illustrations of food that scrolling photogenic foodie photos on your social media feed can't touch. Especially if you love Japanese food (washoku), picture books that feature food are a true gem.

There are story books that revolve around food, but there are also more educational books featuring a certain type of food that give you a deep dive into its history, ingredients, and more. I think adult language learners who are into Japanese culinary culture would especially enjoy those books. Some books also feature encyclopedia-style content like zukan , for example seasonal wagashi, or different types and thickness of ramen noodles. These books tend to be aimed at elementary schoolers, and are written in kana and kanji (often with furigana readings), so they could be great materials for learners who want to practice reading kanji. Just make sure to eat some snacks before heading to a library or bookstore — they will surely make you hungry!

an assortment of yokai ehon

Are you a fan of 妖怪 (yokai) ? If you’re into horror stories or the occult, picture books about yokai could be your jam. If weren’t already familiar, yokai are supernatural beings and mysterious creatures of Japanese folklore. They can be "haunted" inanimate objects imbibed with spiritual energy, water demons like the kappa — who also featured in a Harry Potter series movie — or the frigid 雪女 (yuki onna) snow woman, who freezes her unsuspecting victims to death.

They might sound like an innately frightening topic, but yokai, despite their folktale origins, are a prominent part of Japanese pop culture, especially for children. Ever heard of a little franchise called Pokemon? Yea, yokai inspired. Yokai's looks and habits can be quirky and hilarious, making them much more than the topic of some scary stories. Since many children love yokai in Japan, there are quite a few children's picture books featuring yokai. You might also see the word おばけ as something in the same vein — it generally refers to mysterious creatures including yokai.

Whether you are new to the world of yokai, or an avid fan already, there are many 図鑑 (zukan) / encyclopedia-type books that introduce the different "species" of yokai, and some that even give you tips for how to deal with them if you were ever to encounter these mysterious creatures in real-life.

Yokai manga legend 水木しげる (Mizuki Shigeru), who's best known for the ゲゲゲの鬼太郎 (Ge-Ge-Ge No Kitaro) series, also wrote many picture books about yokai that are well worth checking out.

Now you might be feeling inspired to start reading Japanese picture books (or at least I hope you are), but left wondering where to pick one up. If you're in Japan, you can just pop into the nearest bookstore and wander over to the children's section like I did. Most bookstores will have at least a small children's section. Kinokuniya, Maruzen, Tsutaya, and Book1st are all good options. Even some 100-yen shops sell inexpensive children’s books. If you'd prefer to buy used books, try BookOff! Don't forget to check out your local library as well.

If you'd prefer to browse or read online, or you aren't in Japan, there are some options for you as well. EhonNavi is a Japanese site dedicated to, what else, ehon. On EhonNavi, not only can you search for books by genre, but you can also search by age, which can be helpful to gauge the reading level of the book. One of the many benefits of shopping their catalog online is that they provide free samples. While it’s a limited feature, you can even preview whole books for free by signing up. With your free account you can access the 全ページためしよみ (all-page preview) of up to three books a month (once per title only). Many books also offer a ちょっとためしよみ ("a little" preview) which lets you take a peek of a few pages and for this, you don't even sign up for an account. EhonNavi also offers a premium, paid membership that allows you to read as many books as you want for about four bucks a month (396 yen, to be exact). You can still only read each book once, but you can access as many books as you want! Previews are only available with the mobile app, but it's worth the hassle to download it. Sadly, although EhonNavi does have an online shop where you can buy physical books, sadly, they do not ship overseas.

If you like free stuff and want to support a community of volunteer creators, check out, 絵本ひろば (Ehon Hiroba) . This Japanese site is dedicated to picture books, but all of their books are created by users! You can read stories by amateur ehon artists for free, and there are some wonderful stories with truly impressive art. Sign up for a free account and read these high-quality ehon to your heart's content!

And if you want to get a hold of a physical copy, shipping from Amazon Japan is another option. There are of course lots of children's books to choose from, and Amazon Japan usually ships internationally. For those in the U.S., especially city-dwellers, Kinokuniya might have a brick-and-mortar location near you. They also have an online store , and shipping costs tend to be cheaper than Amazon Japan or other online stores that ship from Japan.

Lastly, I just want to give you a friendly reminder — make sure to take a peek before purchasing ! Especially if you are browsing online, don't forget to take a peek inside before whipping out your wallet and committing your time and money to a purchase. There are many books that provide free previews so be sure to check them out. Again, there is a wide range in picture books, so make sure to choose what you feel is right for your level. Books for toddlers and those intended for school-aged children are vastly different in terms of both language and content, so be sure to look out for things like writing style, vocabulary, the use of kanji, text density, and font.

Most importantly — make sure to pick a book that you think you'll enjoy, and focus on the joy of reading rather than how much you can mine the resources for study material. And of course, don't forget to take some time to admire the illustrations!

I hope this article has given you some new ideas for Japanese books to read. Even though there are some challenges with reading Japanese children's books, because they tend to be shorter and have lots of illustrations, they can be very approachable. They're also, of course, lots of fun. I've gotten a lot of joy out of reading Japanese children's books, and I hope you do, too.

Do You Get the Picture? A Meta-Analysis of the Effect of Graphics on Reading Comprehension by Daibao Guo & Shuai Zhang & Katherine Landau Wright & Erin M. McTigue (2020)  ↩

The Oxford 3000 and the Oxford 5000 by Oxford Learner's Dictionaries  ↩

Diverse BookFinder

Children's Picture Books: Stories about Characters of Japanese Ethnicity

A boy named isamu.

picture books in japanese

by James Yang

"With stunning artwork and heart-singing text, the 2020 winner of the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award brings to life the imagination of Isamu Noguchi. Winner of the Theordor Seuss Geisel Award in 2020 for Stop! Bot!, James Yang imagines a day in the boyhood of Japanese American artist, Isamu Noguchi. Wandering through an outdoor market, through the forest, and then by the ocean, Isamu sees things through the eyes of a young artist…but also in a way that many children will relate. Stones look like birds. And birds look like stones. Through colorful artwork and exquisite text, Yang translates the essence of Noguchi so that we can all begin to see as an artist sees." -- publisher

Chirri & Chirra, The Rainy Day

by David Boyd and Kaya Doi

"One cloudy day, Chirri & Chirra decide to go out on their bicycles. Dring-dring, dring dring! It's already starting to rain. Dring-dring! With the distinctive sound of their bicycle bells, Chirri and Chirra are off on another whimsical adventure. In this new installment of the beloved series, the twins brave a rainy day together...after all, stormy weather is no match for their boundless energy and curiosity. The pair happens upon a cafe that is only open on rainy days, and they sip tea with a side of sweet rock candy as they watch the droplets fall. They continue their journey, only to discover that the rain is now falling upside-down, their bicycles suspended on the droplets as they ride along. For these winsome twins, the world is a haven of endless discovery, of wonderful oddities, of adventure and excitement without danger. Kaya Doi's illustrations, rendered in glowing colored pencil, are warm and inviting for readers, ushering them into the pages like a safe haven from the rain outside.One cloudy day, Chirri & Chirra decide to go out on their bicycles. Dring-dring, dring dring! It's already starting to rain. As is each of their adventures, this one is completely magical and full of wonder. It is also set in a world where, as if by magic (though perhaps it's the force of the creative imagination?), they always find what they need. Pedaling along, they discover a shop. What luck! The sign says it's only open on rainy days. How perfect. Chirri & Chirra order tea. Each is served tea with a bowl of sweet ice rocks. It's a shop for watching the rain while drinking tea! Later, when they feel as if they're floating, they discover that the rain is falling up, from below. They are sailing along on nothing less than upside down rain. And what do they discover in the upside-down rain? A happy scene, of course. Because their world is one of harmony, peace, lightness, and discovery. It is a vision of what life on earth––if we gave love and respect to all humans, animals, and the natural world––might be." -- publisher

Kiyoshi’s Walk

by Mark Karlins and Nicole Wong

"Where do poems come from? This beautiful picture book about a young aspiring poet and his grandfather shows that the answer lies all around us--if we take the time to look." --publisher After Kiyoshi watches his grandfather, Eto, compose his delicate haiku, he wonders out loud: "Where do poems come from?" His grandfather answers by taking him on a walk through their city, where they see a cat perched on a hill of oranges; hear the fluttering of wings; imagine what's behind a tall wall; and discuss their walk, with each incident inspiring a wonderful new haiku from Eto. As Kiyoshi discovers that poems come from the way the world outside of us meets the world within each of us, he also finds the courage to write a haiku of his own. This lovely book will speak to any reader who treasures poetry, city life, grandparents, or the beauty of the everyday." -- publisher

Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites

by Debbi Michiko Florence , Jamie Michalak and Yuko Jones

"Won at auction, this picture book biography tells the story of Niki Nakayama, a powerhouse female Japanese-American chef, and her rise to fame. As a child and adult, Niki faced many naysayers in her pursuit of haute cuisine. Using the structure of a traditional kaiseki meal, the authors playfully detail Niki's hunger for success in thirteen "bites" — from wonton wrappers she used to make pizza as a kid to yuzu-tomatillo sauce in her own upscale Los Angeles Michelin-starred restaurant, n/naka. To anyone who tells her a woman can't be a master chef, Niki lets her food do the talking. And oh, does it talk. Niki was featured on the first season of Netflix's culinary documentary series Chef's Table. And Chrissy Teigen proclaimed that Niki's restaurant is one of her absolute favorites. A smart, strong woman with starpower, Niki is only just getting started -- like the young readers who will devour this book!" -- publisher

Sakamoto’s Swim Club

by Julie Abery and Chris Sasaki

"When the children of workers on a 1930s Maui sugar plantation were chased away from playing in the nearby irrigation ditches, local science teacher Soichi Sakamoto had an idea. He offered to take responsibility for the children --- and then he began training them how to swim. Using his science background, Sakamoto devised his own innovative coaching techniques: he developed a strict practice regime for the kids, building their strength and endurance by using the ditch water's natural current. The children worked hard under the dedicated Sakamoto's guidance, and their skills improved. They formed a swim club and began to dominate in swimming events around the world. And then one day, the proud Sakamoto saw an impossible dream come true --- Olympic gold!" -- publisher

See Where We Come From!

by Scot Ritchie

"A perfect, kid-friendly introduction to family heritage.Today is a big day for the five friends. Their class is hosting a Heritage Festival to celebrate the customs and traditions of people from all over the world. Martin, Sally, Pedro, Nick and Yulee each have their own heritage, and they have so much to share! They learn about various traditions involving music, food, language, stories, crafts, clothing and games. They also learn that exploring their different heritages makes everyone feel like they belong!There's a world of fun to be had, as readers discover the many ways people are alike and what makes each of us unique!"

Cross Group Race/Culture Concepts

The Big Bath House

by Kyo Maclear and Gracey Zhang

"A joyful celebration of Japanese cultural traditions and body positivity as a young girl visits a bath house with her grandmother and aunties. In this celebration of Japanese culture and family and naked bodies of all shapes and sizes, join a little girl—along with her aunties and grandmother—at a traditional bath house. Once there, the rituals leading up to the baths begin: hair washing, back scrubbing, and, finally, the wood barrel drumroll. Until, at last, it’s time, and they ease their bodies—their creased bodies, newly sprouting bodies, saggy, jiggly bodies—into the bath. Ahhhhhh! With a lyrical text and gorgeous illustrations, this picture book is based on Kyo Maclear’s loving memories of childhood visits to Japan, and is an ode to the ties that bind generations of women together." --publisher

Beautiful Life

The Star Festival

by Moni Ritchie Hadley and Mizuho Fujisawa

As five-year-old Keiko and her eighty-five year old Obi, or grandmother, excitedly prepare to celebrate the Star Festival, Tanabata Matsuri, Obi tells the story of Tanabata. Includes information about the festival and how it is celebrated

Beautiful Life Folklore

Words To Make A Friend

by Donna Jo Napoli and Naoko Stoop

"A clever and innovative bilingual English/Japanese picture book about a Japanese girl and an American girl who prove you don’t need to speak the same language to understand each other. When a young Japanese girl moves into her new house, she is happy to see a girl her age playing in the snow just outside her window. The only problem is the Japanese girl doesn’t speak English and the American girl doesn’t speak Japanese. How will these two girls have any fun at all? As it turns out, it’s not that hard when both girls are looking for a friend! What starts with a simple “hello” and “konnichiwa” becomes a day filled with fun in the snow. Each girl’s love of play, snow, and making a new friend transcends the need to speak the same language, and by using simple words in their own languages, along with a bit of charades, the girls find they have all they need to build a snow creature. An important book to show children that speaking the same language isn’t a prerequisite to making a new friend." -- publisher

Cross Group

A Bowl Full of Peace

by Caren Stelson , Caren Barzelay Stelson and Akira Kusaka

"Six-year-old Sachiko and her family suffered greatly after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, and in the years that followed, the miraculous survival of a ceramic bowl became a key part of Sachiko's journey toward peace"--

Biography Informational Oppression & Resilience



Learn Japanese for Kids

Recommended Japanese Children’s Books

Reading Japanese children’s books is a great way for children to learn about the Japanese culture and to complement their Japanese classes . Below is a list of popular Japanese children’s books, some of which have been translated into English:

窓ぎわのトットちゃん  Madogiwa no Totto-chan

黒柳 徹子 tetsuko kuroyanagi (1981).

English translation by Dorothy Britton: Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window (1984)

This is a best-selling book in Japanese history, selling more than 5 million copy when it was first published. This story book has been used as a textbook for third year elementary students in Japan since 1983. There is a bilingual version of this book titled Best of Totto-chan: Totto Chan: The Little Girl at the Window.

Set during the World War II, the story is about a girl named Totto-chan who was admitted to a special school Tomoe Gakuen after being expelled from a public school. The book follows her journey learning and meeting new friends at Tomoe Gakuen.

Japanese Children's Books

魔女の宅急 便 Majo no Takkyuubin 

角野 栄子 eiko kadano (1985).

English Translation by Lynne E. Riggs: Kiki’s Delivery Service (2003)

The book has been adapted into an animated film by Studio Ghibli in 1989 by Hayao Miyazaki (see Top Japanese Animated Films for Children ). The author Eiko Kadano has received the Hans Christian Andersen Award 2018.

The story is about a 13-year old witch who must go into the human world to earn a living for a year to complete her training. With her broomstick and a black cat, she flew into a town and worked at a bakery offering delivery services. The story details her friendship with local town children.

Japanese Children's Books

Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories 

Florence sakade (2018).

The author has published some books including:

Each book contains 10 delightful, well-known Japanese folktales written in English complete with colorful illustrations. These collections are perfect to introduce children to various Japanese folktales.

Japanese Children's Books

Yuko-chan and the Daruma Dolls 

Sunny seki (2012).

The story is about a blind orphan girl who creates a daruma doll and hence being able to help the people in her village to make an income by making the dolls. Sunny Seki’s books are rich in traditional Japanese culture and imagery, coupled with moral stories to learn from. Other books by the same author include:

All the books are bilingual in English and Japanese, making them perfect for learners who want to practice their Japanese reading skills.

' title=

Once Upon A Time in Japan

Japan broadcasting corporations (2015).

English Translation by Juliet Carpenter & Roger Pulvers

This book is a collection of eight favorite Japanese folktales illustrated by various Japanese artists, including stories such as The Wife Who Never Eats, The Gratitude of the Crane, and six more tales. A CD is included.

Japanese Children's Books

霧のむこうのふしぎな町 Kiri no Mukou no Fushigina Machi

柏葉 幸子 sachiko kashiwaba (2004).

English Translation by Christopher Holmes: The Marvellous Village Veiled in Mist

This Japanese edition tells the story of a sixth grader Rina who went on a trip alone to a strange town.

Other works by the same author include:

Japanese Children's Books

夏の庭 Natsu no Niwa

湯本香樹実 yumoto kazumi (1992).

English Translation by Cathy Hirano: The Friends (1996)

The story is about three young boys curious about death making friends with an old man in the neighbourhood. The book has received several awards in Japan and overseas, including the 1997 Boston Globe – Horn Book Award for Fiction.

Other novels by the same author that have been translated into English are The Spring Tone and The Letters . The author’s picture book The Bear and the Wildcat was awarded the Kodansha Award for Picture Books.

Japanese Children's Books

注文の多い料理店 Chuumon no Ooi Ryouri-Ten

宮沢賢治 kenji miyazawa (1992).

English Translation by Seika Marie Smith: A Well-Ordered Restaurant

This is a rather scary story for elementary school children about two men who went for hunting in the woods stumbling into a restaurant, except this is not an ordinary restaurant.

Other notable works by the author include:

Japanese Children's Books

若おかみは小学生! Waka Okami wa Shougakusei! 

令丈 ヒロ子  hiroko reijou.

The story is about an orphaned 12-year old girl who moved in with her grandmother after her parents’ car accident. There she worked at her grandmother’s inn and made friend with a ghost (a boy her age) at the inn. Originally a novel series, the books have been adapted into a manga series of the same name and has been made into an animated television series in 2018.

See here for popular Japanese children’s animated television series .

Japanese Children's Books

君たちはどう生きるか Kimi-tachi wa Dou Ikiru Ka 

吉野源三郎 yoshino genzaburou (1937).

Considered a children’s literature for middle school students, the novel tells the live and school experience of a 15-year old boy Junichi Honda who moved in with his uncle after the death of his father.

Japanese Children's Books

Japanese Children’s Day

How Japanese Children Celebrate New Year

Classic Japanese Nursery Rhymes

New Year in Japan - Kagami Mochi

10 Of Japan’s Best Children’s Books—In English

Translated versions of some of the nation’s most beloved stories.

picture books in japanese

With school out—almost until summer—enrich your family’s days with these stories from Japan’s most famous children’s writers. Let your imagination roam free.

This selection is composed of the best children’s books translated to English by some of Japan’s most famous authors. Many of the titles have been so popular that they have even developed into series. Most of these are picture books, with distinctive graphic styles, and all of them are stories that will pull you and your children into their own fantasy world.

Even if English-language versions, these books will give you a glimpse of Japanese life and a variety of ways of looking at that life—whether it’s through the eyes of a boy, a rabbit, a mouse, or a more exotic creature.  These are beloved modern classics that readers will never grow out of!

1.  Hi, Butterfly! by Taro Gomi

10 Of Japan’s Best Children’s Books—In English

Taro Gomi is one of Japan’s most popular author-illustrators for children due to his characteristic drawing style and relatable humor. It’s hard to go wrong with any book by this prolific writer, who particularly has many titles for preschoolers. In Hi, Butterfly! , we join a young boy as he chases a butterfly through town and country, leading to surprising results. 

Japanese title: きいろいのは ちょうちょ,  kiiro no ha choucho

Author: 五味太郎, Gomi Taro 

Reading level: Preschool and up  

2.  It Might Be An Apple by Shinsuke Yoshitake

10 Of Japan’s Best Children’s Books—In English

Shinsuke Yoshitake is another author-illustrator with a characteristic visual style and engaging view of life. This book takes us on the imaginative and wild train of thought of a boy looking at what appears to be an apple—but may not be an apple! As well as being a lot of fun, the story encourages readers to question what they see in the world. 

Japanese title: りんごかもしれない,  ringo kamoshirenai

Author: ヨシタケシンスケ , Yoshitake Shinsuke

Reading level: From preschool to about age 10

3. Gracie Meets a Ghost by Keiko Sena

Gracie Wears Glasses Book

When Gracie the rabbit goes looking for her lost glasses on a mountain at night, her poor eyesight frustrates a ghost’s attempts to scare her. Keiko Sena’s illustrative style is simple, yet expressive, and her stories often end in an unexpected way. This particular book is a great way to start a conversation with a child about needing to wear glasses.

Japanese title: めがねうさぎ,  megane usagi

Author: せな けいこ, Sena Keiko

Reading level: Age 4–8

4. Blackie, the Crayon by Miwa Nakaya

10 of Japan’s Best Children’s Books – in English

Blackie gets left out of a group drawing that starts happily but is ruined by selfishness. Later, together with a mechanical pencil, he fixes the artwork and saves the day. The cute, simple drawings make it easy to identify with Blackie’s feelings and final triumph.

Japanese title: くれよんのくろくん, kureyon no kurokun  

Author: なかや みわ , Nakami Miwa

5. Little Daruma and Little Tengu: A Japanese Children’s Tale   by Satoshi Kako

10 Of Japan’s Best Children’s Books—In English

Japanese title: だるまちゃんとてんぐちゃん,  daruma-chan to tengu-chan

Author: 加古 里子 , Kako Satoshi  

6. Guri and Gura by Rieko Nakagawa

10 Of Japan’s Best Children’s Books—In English

This is the story of two mice who like to cook. When they find a giant egg in the forest, they decide to make an enormous sponge cake. Just like the words, the illustrations by Yuriko Yamawaki create a warm safe world that is full of friends to share good times with. Every Japanese child has grown up with Guri and Gura, who have gone on to many more adventures. 

Japanese title: ぐりとぐら,  guri to gura

Author: なかがわ りえこ , Nakagawa Rieko

7. You Look Yummy! by Tatsuya Miyanishi

10 Of Japan’s Best Children’s Books—In English

A misunderstanding of sorts leads to a heartfelt story of dinosaurs who discover that the bond of family isn’t necessarily a biological one. This huge hit of a book has spawned a series, an animated film, and many devoted fans.

Japanese title: おまえうまそうだな,  omae umasou dana

Author: 宮西 達也 , Miyanishi Tatsuya

Reading level: Age 4–10

8. The 14 Forest Mice and the Harvest Moon Watch by Kazuo Iwamura

10 Of Japan’s Best Children’s Books—In English

Kazuo Iwamura gives us a charming story and pictures of a family of ten mice, their parents, and grandparents. This book is a great introduction to the Japanese practice of autumnal moon viewing and includes particularly beautiful illustrations of the light of the moon. With lots of visual detail and insights into the various personalities of the many characters, there’s a lot to keep readers busy.

Japanese title: 14ひきのおつきみ,  juuyon hiki no otsukimi

Author: いわむら かずお , Iwamura Kazuo  

9. A Friend by Shuntaro Tanikawa

10 Of Japan’s Best Children’s Books—In English

This book is for school-aged children and reflects on what makes a friend: “A friend is someone you feel like walking home with.” And in a reminder of life before Covid-19: “A friend is someone who doesn’t avoid you, even when you have a cold.” This book touches on the issue of bullying and is often used in grade six elementary school classes. Simple illustrations by Makoto Wada add further emotion to the words.

Japanese title: ともだち,  tomodachi

Author: 谷川 俊太郎, Tanikawa Shuntaro 

Reading level: Age 6–12

10.   Night on the Milky Way Train by Kenji Miyazawa

10 Of Japan’s Best Children’s Books—In English

This is one of the great classics of Japanese literature, written by one of its best. This fantasy tells of two boys who take a train ride through the stars. Among the nine other stories included in this compilation is another childhood favorite, The Restaurant of Many Orders ( 注文の多い料理店, chuumon no ooi ryouri-ten ). This is a perfect book for older kids, and their parents.

Japanese title: 銀河鉄道の夜,  ginza tetsudou no yoru

Author: 宮沢 賢治 , Miyazawa Kenji   

Reading level: Age 8 and up

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Ehon (絵本): 8 Fun Japanese Picture Books for Kids

picture books in japanese

Japanese picture books, or ehon (絵本), are great tools for kids to learn Japanese. They’re packed with the right balance of cute graphics, dialogues, Japanese sentences and an entertaining storyline. The illustrations can become contextual cues for children, providing a sort of ‘cushion’ when you’re reading the text. All of these make studying Japanese less overwhelming and, well, more fun and educational — especially when it’s for children or beginner-level students.

Just like famous Japanese authors like Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto, some of the best and most classic children’s books are written by well-known writers and illustrators. In fact, they have been so popular that they’re developed into series and translated to English. You can easily notice them from their iconic art style and characters: a rabbit, a mouse, a daruma and other peculiar creatures. 

Many Japanese picture books for children can also teach about Japanese culture and become a backdoor to understanding how Japanese society works. Perhaps the best part of reading Japanese picture books is that they are more interactive than normal textbooks or learning apps. Some books leave readers curious about the next page because there’s a lot of guessing game: Is the next turn the answer? What’s inside the apple?

Check out our favorite Japanese books for children that are easy, fun and creative.

Elements of a Japanese Children’s Books

What is ehon.

Ehon is the Japanese name for illustrated books. The word is comprised of two kanji: 絵 (e), which means “drawing”, and 本 (hon), which means book. Pretty self-explanatory, right? Initially, ehon were specifically paintings drawn in woodblock prints published in the Edo and Meiji period. Toward the end of the 19th century, the definition of ehon becomes more generic and gravitated towards more western concepts of commercial literature.

Now, ehon are picture books with stories made for children.

More Pictures Than Sentences and Dialogues

Open a children’s book at your local bookstore in Japan, and you’ll notice that the graphics take more space than the text. In fact, you’ll probably get one to two sentences per page. This 

While there are a lot of visual novels and books with illustrations, Japanese picture books for children (ehon) are inherently unique, in the sense that the narrative relies heavily on the images on every page. The images carry the story and engage the reader as they can also provide context to not only help you read, but read between the lines as well.

Learning new words from picture books can help you gain a better understanding of their nuance, and provide concrete examples of how and when they’re typically used in context, which is something direct translations can’t always achieve. 

Little to No Kanji 

This can be a drawback or benefit of Japanese children’s books (ehon), depending on how you look at it. When it comes to Japanese school children, they have to learn kanji by learning the kanji with the simplest meanings first. This actually makes sense because they’re little kids and they need to learn vocabulary words.

While this is helpful for a child’s learning growth, parents will often times read the book to their kids. If you already have decent kanji knowledge, you might need more time to grasp the sentence if it’s all in hiragana. You may not be comfortable reading all-kana text at first, but you’ll get used to it as you read. 

They Focus on Rhythm and Pronunciation

You’ll notice a lot of ehon incorporating onomatopoeia and rhythmic-like texts. This is because ehon are written for children who are getting used to the Japanese language. Although they’re not filled with tongue-twisters in particular, Japanese kid’s books tackle tricky sounds, like small tsu. 

Our Favorite Kids Japanese Picture Books (Ehon)

1. ぐりとぐら (guri and gura).

guri to gura (guri and gura) children's book JApanese

Guri to Gura (ぐりとぐら) is probably the most popular picture book in Japan. It tells about two anthropomorphic mice who are very fond of cooking and eating. In their initial story, both protagonists come across a huge egg in the middle of the woods. They decided to make a huge sponge cake and share it with other animals. 

The Japanese children’s book is written by Rieko Nakagawa and Illustrator Yuriko Yamawaki. The first volume was published in 1963 in a monthly magazine, and it has since been so well-known (355 million copies by 1996) that it’s translated into several languages. Eventually, the book spun off into a series of ehon. Buy here . 

Level: Age 4–8

2. しろくまちゃんのほっとけーき (Shirokuma-chan’s Pancakes)

shirokumachan no hottokeeki (shirokuma-chan's pancakes)

Simple pictures and unique Japanese onomatopoeia makes Shirokuma-chan no Hottokeeki a young children’s best-selling book for more than 30 years. The picture book follows Little Polar Bear (Shirokuma-chan) who’s making pancakes with her mama. When they are finished cooking, she invites her friend Little Bear (Koguma-chan) to eat them with her.

There are many sequels to this book, but the most popular one remains the first series. A part of the book is devoted to the sound of cooking pancakes. Buy here . 

Level: Age 3–5 

3. だるまちゃんとてんぐちゃん (Little Daruma and Little Tengu)

だるまちゃんとてんぐちゃん (Little Daruma and Little Tengu)

In Japanese, tengu is a mischievous supernatural being, and Daruma is a symbol of good luck. Satoshi Kako, the writer, made these two traditional Japanese characters cute and fun for children. The story follows Daruma-chan, who is envious of Tengu-chan’s fan, nose and wooden clogs. 

Another classic picture book, Daruma-chan to Dengu-chan is a humorous take on children who wants to be their friends — or imitate those around them. The ehon features watercolor illustrations, making it a great book for children and adults to learn Japanese. Buy here . 

4. きいろいのは ちょうちょ (Yellow Butterfly)

yellow butterfly kids ehon

Yellow Butterfly is an unexpectedly fun Japanese children’s book that captures the mind and senses of young toddlers: curiosity. Taro Gomi explores the sense of colors and shapes perceived by children, helping them get creative. 

The children book follows a young boy who’s trying to catch a butterfly, except there’s a catch: he perceives everything yellow as a butterfly. On one side of the page, the boy is getting ready to capture the butterfly with his net. You will have to flip to another page to find out the real object. It keeps children (and even adults) guessing: Will it be a butterfly or just a yellow flower? When will the yellow butterfly appear in the story? Buy here . 

5. おまえうまそうだな (You Look So Yummy)

Don’t let the title, Omae umasou da na, fool you into thinking that this is a book to scare children. You Look Yummy! Is an endearing father-and-son story. A big, intimidating T-rex is about to pounce when a small dynosaurus baby grabs his leg and cries out, “Daddy!”

From this misunderstanding, the two develop a strong family bond and teach children that the strongest bond isn’t always a biological one. The picture book doesn’t just celebrate the love between father and son — it highlights the importance of family. Buy here . 

Level: Age 4–10

6. こんとあき (Kon and Aki)

kon to aki

A touching story made by Akiko Hayashi, Kon and Aki tells the story between a young girl, Aki, and her plush fox, Kon. The fox was made by her grandma, and when the fox becomes worn out, Aki decides to embark on a journey to her grandma’s house to have him repaired. Along the way, Aki encounters various problems: getting the plush snatched by a dog, having the fox’s tail stuck on the door train, and more. 

With Akiko Hayashi’s gentle text, endearing pictures and preference pastels, the classic book teaches children the dept of friendship, love and perseverance. Buy here . 

7. りんごかもしれない (Might Be An Apple)

りんごかもしれない it might be an apple

A premise similar to きいろいのは ちょうちょ (Kiiroi No Wa Choucho), りんごかもしれない (Ringo Kamo Shirenai)  follows a child’s hilarious and fun journey of coming across apple lookalikes. As he looks at what appears to be an apple, the boy’s imagination spirals into thoughts of all the things an apple can be. The book is crazy, funny and thought-provoking, encouraging children to start getting curious and questioning what they see in the world. Buy here . 

Level: Age 10

8. ねないこだれだ (Who’s Not Sleeping)

who is not asleep nenaiko dare da

Every country has its own take on boogymen — and scary bedtime stories to aid children to fall asleep. ねないこだれだ (Nenaiko Dare Da) has been used by Japanese families since 1969 to help children go to bed. It describes all the scary things that appear in the middle of the night and a flying ghost who will snatch children if they’re not asleep. Buy here . 

Level: Age 0–2

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Learning about japan for kids: picture books.

Learning about Japan for Kids: Picture Books

We are preparing for a BIG trip to Japan this fall for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. As I noted in my recent post Ideas to Learn about Japan in Boston , we are using the time before our trip to learn about Japan.

Books are a natural starting point. (The library card is the original passport, right?) First, we started with some general books about Japan. After exploring those books, we then dug deeper with books by Japanese authors and books more generally about Japan.

Bonus: Scroll to the bottom of this post to download a PDF of the entire list that you can print out and take with you to the library!

Disclaimer: This list is by no means complete but I hope it can be useful as a starting point for you! The books included on this list can be found in the United States. Specifically, I based it on what I could find using our local library system. The books selected also are reflective of my kids age (6 and 2).

Books About Japan

All About Japan: Stories, Songs, Crafts and More by Willamarie Moore and illustrated by Kazumi Wilds

All About Japan: Stories, Songs, Crafts and More by Willamarie Moore and illustrated by Kazumi Wilds

Willamarie Moore and Kazumi Wilds take you on a journey to Japan. In this illustrated book, you are introduced to Japanese people, places and traditions. This includes folktales, recipes, crafts, songs and more.

I Live in Tokyo  by Mari Takabayashi

I Live in Tokyo by Mari Takabayashi

In this illustrated book by Mari Takabayashi , we follow Mimiko, a seven year old living in Tokyo. Mimiko takes the reader month-by-month through a year’s worth of fun, food and festivities celebrated in Tokyo. In addition to sharing highlights of the Japanese year, we get insight into the daily life of an average seven year old living in Tokyo.

Scholastic Rocket Discovery Country Profiles Japan

Blastoff! Discovery: Japan

As part of Scholastic’s Blastoff! Discovery series, Blastoff! Discovery Japan provides elementary school students an overview of Japan. Topics include landscape, customs, celebrations, school and work and wildlife.

Japanese Children's Favorite Stories

Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories Compiled by Florence Sakade and Illustrated by Yoshisuke Kurosaki

Originally published in 1953, Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories is a wonderful collection of Japanese fairy tales and folk stories. Mr. 6 LOVES this book. With stories of long-nosed goblins, tiny warriors, and spider weavers, the twenty stories in this book have captured our imagination.

My First Book of Japanese Words by Michelle Haney Brown and Illustrated by Aya Padron

My First Book of Japanese Words: An ABC Rhyming Book of Japanese Language and Culture by Michelle Haney Brown and Illustrated by Aya Padron

Michelle Haney Brown uses the familiar ABC framework to introduce Japanese language and culture to preschoolers . Beautiful imagery accompanies each page. In addition to a description of the featured word, you are able to see the word in Kanji, Hiragrana and its Romanized forms.

Japanese Nursery Rhymes Carp Streamers Falling Rain and Other Traditional Favorites

Japanese Nursery Rhymes Carp Streamers Falling Rain and Other Traditional Favorites by Danielle Wright and illustrated by Helen Acraman

Music is the best way to learn a language. This book/CD combo features 15 nursery rhymes. Each rhyme is written in Japanese characters, Romanized characters and English translation. Mr. 2 loves singing along to this book!

Lonely Planet Kids City Trails Tokyo

Lonely Planet Kids: City Trails Tokyo

As someone whose formative travel experiences were shaped by Lonely Planet books, I was excited to go through its kid-offering in Lonely Planet Kids City Trails Tokyo .

This book did not disappoint. In fact, Mr. 6 is obsessed with it! Combining illustrations with real life imagery, the book takes us through Tokyo, clearly focused on topics and places that interest kids. Not only has the book helped us understand Japan a bit better, it is also very useful as a trip planning aide!

picture books in japanese

Japanese Traditions: Rice Cakes, Cherry Blossoms and Matsuri

Japanese Traditions provides a month-by-month look at Japanese celebrations, culture, food, and traditions, in a fun, lighthearted manner.

Books by Japanese Authors

Some favorite books by Taro Gomi

One of Japan’s most prolific children’s book authors, Taro Gomi has more than 400 books in Japan. In addition, his works have been published in more than 15 languages worldwide. Some of the titles we have enjoyed over the years include: 

picture books in japanese

Caldecott Medal winner Allen Say draws on his experience as a Japanese American in his children’s books, many of which are based on his family history. We enjoyed three of his books: Grandfather’s Journey , Tea with Milk and Kamishibai Man .

Say’s illustration is very unique, looking like a blend of photography and painting. The stories are appropriate for elementary age children (and perhaps Pre-K). For us, they evoked conversations about understanding family history and how Japan has changed over time.

picture books in japanese

Mitsumasa Anno

Anno is an award-winning author and illustrator of 40+ works. We enjoyed Anno’s Magic Seeds which is a twist on Jack and the Beanstalk. In addition, it introduces multiplication as a concept in a story format. We also enjoyed Anno’s Counting Book and Anno’s Mysterious Multiplying Jar . These books each explore different mathematical concepts in a story format. Therefore, they can be read purely for the story elements or be used to supplement math lessons.

Wait! Wait! by  Hatsue Nakawaki and Komako Sakai (Illustrator)

Hatsue Nakawaki and Komako Sakai (Illustrator)

A sweet book for babies and toddlers, Wait! Wait! follows a young child’s exploration and play.

Sumo Boy by Hirotaka Nakagawa and Yoshifumi Hasegawa

Hirotaka Nakagawa and Yoshifumi Hasegawa (Illustrator)

To begin with, Sumo Boy fights for justice using sumo moves. This story includes an end note explaining sumo terms and moves.

Favorite books by Kazuaki Yamada

Kazuaki Yamada

Kazuaki Yamada is best known for My Red Balloon . My Red Balloon tells the story of a little girl, her friends, a bus and a red balloon. In addition to a sweet story of friendship, the book has play-like illustrations that perfectly match the story.

Above all, A Concert in the Park is an imaginative tale with adorable illustrations. The story brings together a boy and forest animals into a glorious orchestra in the park.

Seven Little Mice series by  Haruo Yamashita and Kazuo Iwamura

Haruo Yamashita and Kazuo Iwamura

Haruo Yamashita and Kazuo Iwamura collaborated on this sweet series about the adventures of mice septuplets. In brief, this is a brilliant series for toddlers and preschoolers.

999 Tadpoles by Ken Kimura and Illustrated by Yasunari Murakami

In 999 Tadpoles , Mother and Father frog and their 999 tadpoles face dangers as they search for a new home after outgrowing their pond. Ken Kimura brings humor and Yasunari Murakami’s illustrations bring this tale to life. There are two other titles in this series: 999 Frogs Wake Up and 999 Frogs and a Little Brother .

The Midnight Library by Kazuno Kohara

Kazuno Kohara

Author-Illustrator Kazuno Kohara has written four books, including The New York Times best illustrated book of 2008 ( Ghosts in the Houes! ). We enjoyed The Midnight Library , a sweet story about a little librarian and her three assistant owls who work at the library that is only open at night.

Footprints in the Snow by Mei Matsuoka

Mei Matsuoka

Japanese-English author-illustrator Mei Matsuoka has more than ten books to her name. Footprints in the Snow follows Wolf, who sets out to counter stories about mean and nasty wolves by writing a story about a nice wolf.

Books Inspired by Japan

picture books in japanese

Books by Chieri Uegaki

Chieri Uegaki is a second generation Japanese-Canadian whose stories center on the Japanese American experience. In Ojiichan’s Gift (just recently published), Mayumi lives in North America but travels to Japan each summer. In Japan she works with her Ojiichan (grandfather) in his garden. As Ojiichan ages and has to leave his home, Mayumi finds a way to keep the memory of the garden alive for both of them.

Take Me Out to the Yakyu by Aaron Meshon

Take Me Out to The Yakyu by Aaron Meshon

Aaron Meshon’s delightful picture book compares a boy’s experience of attending baseball games in both the US and Japan. Filled with observations about the differences between countries, the book provides a child’s-eye perspective of life in a different country. This was certainly a book we came back to again and again.

Little Kunoichi Series by Sanae Ishida

Little Kunoichi Series by Sanae Ishida

Seattle-based Sanae Ishida has three delightful books in the Little Kunoichi series. In Little Kunoichi: The Ninja Girl we meet Little Kunoichi. Little Kunoichi lives on a super secret island, comes from a family of ninjas and goes to a special ninja school. We meet Little Kunoichi’s friend Chibi Samurai in Chibi Samurai Wants a Pet . And we join Little Kunoichi on an adventure with the quirky artist and inventor Ba-Chan in Ba-Chan: The Ninja Grandma.

The Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsaito and illustrated by Julia Kuo

The Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsaito and illustrated by Julia Kuo

Katrina Goldsaito explores the Japanese concept of ma, the silence between sounds, in The Sound of Silence . After a musician tells Yoshio that her favorite sound is silence, Yoshio searches across Tokyo, a very noisy city, for silence.

Not only does this book have a meaningful story, but also the illustrations have incredible detail that bring the story to life. The Sound of Silence is a great read for families interested in mindfulness.

The Way We Do It In Japan by Geneva Cobb Iijima and illustrated by Paige Billin-Frye

The Way We Do It in Japan by Geneva Cobb Iijima and illustrated by Paige Billin-Frye

Gregory’s mother Jane comes from Kansas and father Hidiaki comes from Japan. As they leave their home in San Francisco to live in Tokyo, we follow Gregory as he navigates the changes in culture. Mr. 6 really identified with Gregory as he started Japanese school and made new friends. This book presents cultural differences as matter-of-fact, in a similar manner to another book we love This is How We Do It.

Tokyo Friends by Betty Reynolds

Tokyo Friends by Betty Reynolds

Tokyo Friends brings together Katie, a young American girl living in Tokyo, and Keiko and Kenji, two young Japanese siblings. Katie, Keiko and Kenji teach each other the customs of their respective countries as they explore Tokyo. In addition, the friends explore Japanese holidays and celebrations month by month. Together with the cultural explorations, Reynolds also adds Japanese translations of items illustrated throughout the book.

Yoko's Paper Cranes by Rosemary Wells

Yoko’s Paper Cranes by Rosemary Wells

Rosemary Wells’ career as an author and illustrator spans more than 40 years and 120 books. Included in her prolific works is a 6-book series featuring Yoko, a Japanese cat living in America. We read Yoko’s Paper Cranes , a story that emphasizes maintaining long distance family links and traditions. It celebrates several aspects of Japanese culture including origami.

My Awesome Japan Adventure: A Diary about the Best 4 Months Ever! by Rebecca Otowa

My Awesome Japan Adventure: A Diary about the Best 4 Months Ever! by Rebecca Otowa

Rebecca Otowa writes and illustrates this diary of an American fifth grader who is on a four month exchange in Japan. We get the chance to experience Japanese culture through the eyes of Dan. Topics include Japanese breakfast, mochi, holidays, ninja, family life and riding the train.

The Origami Master by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer and Illustrated by Aki Sogabe

The Origami Master by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer and illustrated by Aki Sogabe

A story of friendship , Shima the Origami Master and the warbler inspire each other through their origami creations. In addition, the book includes directions on how to make an origami bird.

picture books in japanese

I Am Tama, Lucky Cat

Drawing on the legend of Maneki Neko―“beckoning cat,” I am Tama, Lucky Cat provides an explanation as to why waving cats are found at temples across Japan.

picture books in japanese

The Two Foolish Cats

Suggested by a Japanese folktale, The Two Foolish Cats argue over who should get the larger ricecake and go to the wise, old monkey to settle the matter.

Book Series Set in Japan

Some chapter book series with books set in Japan

Beyond books specifically about Japan, a number of book series have books set specifically in Japan. A few of these series include:

Bonus: List Download

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Ideas for Kids to Learn About Japan in Boston

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