Using Japanese Manga in the English Classroom

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Bern Mulvey, Fukui University


  • Key Words: Vocabulary, Japanese culture, Group work, Games
  • Learner English Level:All
  • Learner Maturity Level:College and above
  • Preparation Time:Depending on knowledge of manga; after the first time, almost none
  • Activity Time:60 minutes

A number of researchers (e.g., Kitao & Kitao, 1995; Okada, 1995) have commented on the low ability levels and lack of preparation to be found in many Japanese university students. When coupled with large (50+) class sizes and the questionable motivation levels of some of these students, you have what can be a difficult teaching situation, one not alleviated by the often dry basic English texts that class sizes and low student proficiency levels often demand. Given the above constraints, what can university-level English language teachers do to maintain student interest while at the same time helping to improve student abilities?

While each teacher must ultimately find his or her solution to these challenges, I have found that by incorporating elements of current Japanese pop culture into my lesson plans, I am often able to stimulate student interest while at the same time achieve important teaching goals. Below, I discuss one such activity related to the use of Japanese manga in the classroom.


In most basic English language textbooks, chapters are organized around a particular language situation ("shopping," "introductions," "at the airport," etc.) and typically contain lists of expressions useful to this situation. Hence, ideally you need to find a manga which contains excerpts both appropriate to the particular chapter (i.e., language situation) you are teaching and "interesting." This latter point is especially critical: if the manga you choose fails to catch your students' interest, you will have a difficult time getting them to do this exercise.

While it helps to be able to read Japanese, such ability is not essential: there are a number of publications which provide manga complete with English translations, the best being the old Mangajin series (back issues of which can be ordered at the following website: My personal favorites, however, are Yamashina Keisuke's C-kyuu Sarariman Kouza series (especially good for classes with business-related majors) or any of the four manga books written by Kera Eiko. Besides being very funny, the fact that these authors organize their books in short, theme-driven chapters--"the wedding reception," "introductions," "family life," etc.--enables teachers to evaluate more easily the appropriateness of the material to a particular lesson plan.

After you find a suitable manga, choose a short excerpt (3-4 pages) from it and carefully white out all the dialogue in the bubbles in the middle sections. However, do not erase the dialogue from the bubbles at the very beginning and end of the excerpt; leaving this information intact will help ensure that students understand the scene and context of the dialogue. Finally, make copies for approximately half the class (this exercise works best if done in small groups).


Generally, I "warm up" the class for the manga assignment by having students do the related exercises in the textbook. For example, in Speaking Naturally (a good, if somewhat dry, textbook), there is a chapter entitled "Expressing Anger and Resolving Conflict." Typically, I have students listen to the model dialogues, read the "useful expressions" list that comes after, and then do the "small group practice" work that comes near the end of each chapter. Especially with this textbook, the model dialogues and attached word lists contain a large number of very useful expressions, each with a short but helpful discussion as to the level of formality and possible connotations of each term.

After students have finished with these exercises, I divide them up into groups of two (or three if a class is really large) and then give each group a copy of the manga excerpt. For example, with regards to the chapter mentioned above, I often use excerpts from a chapter in Shichinenme no Sekirara Kekkon Seikatsu (Kera, 1999) entitled "Naretekita." This chapter (especially the latter half) focuses on the couple's (the author bases most of her story threads on actual issues from her own marriage) attempts to negotiate over what to do with meal leftovers. The wife, mistakenly equating her husband's initial willingness to help her "clean her plate" as a sign of his love for her (the fact is, he just likes shrimp), proceeds to test that love by offering him progressively larger--and more disgusting--leftovers, until he finally explodes with anger.

Typically, the first reaction of the class is to giggle at the pictures. Then, they notice that most of the dialogue has been erased. As they look up in surprise, I tell them that their job for the next 40 or so minutes is to write the dialogue for these pictures. I emphasize to them that any dialogue they write--as long as it has its own internal consistency--is fine by me. However, I challenge them to be "interesting." "Strange is good," I tell them. "Be creative. Weird is fine. Crazy is fine. Anybody who makes me either laugh or cry gets a guaranteed 'A'."

"In English?!" I am invariably asked. "Yes, in English," I reply. "Eeeehhhhh..," is the usual response.

After they settle down and begin to work, I circulate among the different groups to assist and to encourage. I bring to their attention how the expression lists in the textbook contain words and phrases which might be useful to them (while most will then try to use at least one of the sample expressions, I do not force them to do so). Students typically run their ideas by me: I help them put those ideas into English. When confronted with a pattern of error (e.g., a student consistently confusing singular with plural usage), I explain the rules to that student's group; otherwise, I try not to focus too much on sentence-level grammar concerns. Instead, I challenge each group to be creative and to use new vocabulary, suggesting expressions which appear particularly suitable to their ideas, and asking questions when their phrasing is obscure. Especially creative and/or amusing takes on the assignment I share with the class, reading excerpts aloud--often prefaced by a surprised laugh (it always amazes me how creative students can be).

I cannot emphasize enough how important a personal touch can be, especially if done in an enthusiastic and encouraging manner. For many students, this will be their first time to write a dialogue in a foreign language. They will be (particularly at the beginning) a little shy, at least partly in recognition of their own limitations in the English language, and partly for cultural reasons as well. However, if through encouragement you can get them to focus on communication (i.e., on conveying what they really want to say in writing, however imperfect the phrasing) as opposed to sentence-level grammar concerns (i.e., "Is this sentence perfect?"), you will be surprised at both the quality and the quantity of the output your students will produce.


All of us would ideally like to teach in programs where high student motivation levels and low teacher-student ratios are the norm; however, this is not often possible in Japan. Prevailing classroom conditions here often prevent teachers from doing many traditional "fun" activities, the kind that enliven classes while at the same time force students to learn to use new expressions for themselves. Using a manga activity like the one described above can be a helpful way around this problem.


Bruder, M.N. & Tillitt, B. (1986). Speaking naturally. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Kera, E. (1999). Shichinenme no sekirara kekkon seikatsu [The seventh year of frank married life]. Tokyo: Media Factory.

Kitao, K. & Kitao, S.K. (1995). English teaching: Theory, research, practice. Tokyo: Eichosha.

Okada, T., et al. (1995). Daigaku ni okeru eisakubun no arikata: eisakubun jittai chousa no houkoku [English composition teaching in Japanese schools: A report on the current situation]. Kyoto: JACET Kansai Chapter.

Yamashina, K. (1994-1998). C-kyuu sarariman kouza [C-grade businessman course]. (Vols. 1-6). Tokyo: Shogakukan.