Inside Tobira: A Section-by-Section Overview (With Tips)

Tobira really sets itself apart in a few ways. One is its rich content which addresses topics well beyond everyday life that will really extend your sphere of knowledge and communication abilities in Japanese. Topics include things such as: Japanese Pop Culture, Japanese Sports, Japanese Food, Japanese Government… Another way Tobira is different is in its integration with its companion website and variety of online content. And finally, its volume of practice exercises available throughout the main textbook, workbooks and online. 

Tobira is the most widely used textbook by English speaking learners transitioning from beginner to intermediate Japanese. Through rich content about Japanese culture, history, and current events, features for self-learners, and substantial online content, Tobira seeks to extend learners’ knowledge and abilities.

Tobira at a high level:

  • Designed for learners who have completed 250-300 hours of beginner level study
  • 4 books: main textbook, grammar workbook, kanji workbook and teacher’s guide
  • 800 kanji: 297 review from beginner level, 503 new for intermediate level
  • About 1500 vocabulary words
  • 246 grammar points, about 14 to 18 per chapter
  • 15 chapters covering a variety of interesting topics
  • Substantial amount of content completely in Japanese
  • Audio and video resources available online
  • Role play exercises with Language Partner Online

Structure of a Chapter

Each chapter starts with a warmup activity related to the topic of the chapter in which you might match words to pictures and answer questions based on your own life experience and where you live. E.g., the kinds of foods in your country, what foods you like… It’s all done in Japanese, so you do your best to use what Japanese you currently have to work your way through it.

Long Passage Reading

Next comes the 読み物, which is a long reading passage based on the topic of the chapter (maybe a page and half or so in length). Furigana is not provided in the reading and dialogue sections, which means you will be reading kanji! This is good to push yourself. Even if you don’t know all the words initially and it’s hard to understand, just give it a try. A list of the new vocabulary that appeared in the reading passage comes right after it. Kanji, hiragana, part of speech and English translations are given.

Note that there are no side-by-side English translations of the Japanese text, both for the reading passages and dialogues (which come next). This is an important part of your transition to from beginner to intermediate Japanese learner. I recommend doing your best to try to understand the content in its Japanese form. It’s ok if you don’t get everything. But if you are feeling really lost, there’s the Teacher’s Guide which does contain the English translations of the Japanese content.


A series of about 3 dialogues 会話文 comes after the reading passage, which is followed by a list of the vocabulary that appeared in the dialogues. You can actually listen to the reading passages and the dialogues on the companion website. The audio is all there for you. You can even listen to the vocabulary lists! This will help with your pronunciation. In fact, I recommend listening to the material once first, then reading it.

After the dialogues come questions to test whether you have understood what you read/listened to. The questions are in Japanese, so it’s good practice to go through them and answer. Instead of just passively reading, challenge yourself to process what you read and formulate your own answers to the questions. Next are some guided conversation practice exercises 会話練習. An example conversation is given, then there are some subsequent similar conversations in which you fill in the blanks with your own words.

Role Play Activities

Then there are role play type activities which are intended to be acted out with a partner. What should self-learners do here? There are a few options which range in effectiveness. The first option is to just try to play all the parts yourself. At the very least you are trying to formulate your own sentences and express your own thoughts. Don’t underestimate this! This is part of experiential learning. If you want to speak Japanese, not just understand it when you hear/read it, then you need to practice speaking it, put another way, you need output, not just input. But how do you know if your sentences are coming out right? Well, a much better option for the role plays is to work with a private tutor who can give you individualized attention. I have had great experiences and made solid gains working with private tutors. And they can actually be quite affordable!

Grammar and Kanji

Next comes the grammar section. There are 14 to 18 grammar points to learn per chapter, 246 in all.

The grammar point is presented by first showing the excerpts of where they appeared in the reading passage (it’s always helpful to learn in context). Then a brief explanation is given in English, and the ways to connect the grammar point in a sentence are also given. The grammar explanations are not as detailed as in Genki for example. So, a Google search is helpful if you find yourself in need of supplementary explanation. Following the explanation, several new example sentences are given. The sentences are in Japanese only. But again, if you feel lost, the English translations are in the Teacher’s Guide.

Tip: it is helpful to memorize an example sentence or two to help remember the grammar and how it is used. Also, you can help build your repository of pre-formulated sentences this way, which you can adapt for use in situations you encounter in real life.

Kanji comes next. It’s actually a table of words with the word written in kanji and hiragana side by side. I find this to be one good strategy to learn kanji, by associating an individual character with a word. The kanji section is short, and there are no practice exercises in the main textbook, but there are a lot of in the kanji workbook.

Extra Gems of Knowledge

Two types of additional notes are found in the chapters, language notes 言語ノート and culture notes 文化ノート. Culture notes start appearing in chapter 5 and onward. These notes cover a variety of things and are well worth reading. My favorite is the explanation of mono もの vs. koto こと. Both mean ‘thing’ but the nuance and use of each is explained. There is even a brief introduction to nominalization, which an extremely useful linguistic tool in Japanese.

Practice Exercises

Each chapter also comes with a fair amount of practice exercises and activities contained right within the main content. Activities include:

  • Reading comprehension questions
  • Dialogue comprehension questions
  • Questions to provoke group conversation
  • Listening practice and questions with a partner
  • Pair work
  • Role plays

One thing to be aware of is that there is no answer key available for the questions and exercises found throughout the main textbook. I recommend doing the exercises anyways. Practice is how you reinforce and solidify what you learn. For pair work and role plays, as mentioned, the best thing to do will actually be to work with a private tutor. If you really want exercises with answers, then there is a solution. The grammar and kanji workbooks have (many, but not all) answers at the back! These workbooks are packed with practice questions and are about as thick as the main textbook.

Rounding Off the Main Textbook

Let’s also touch on the index where a couple of handy things are found. One is a full hiragana order list with English translations and part of speech, of all the vocabulary words found throughout the textbook and the corresponding chapter where they are presented. The other is a full index of the all the grammar points from each chapter, essentially just the grammar point itself and the chapter where it was presented.

For a bit more advice on how to use Tobira as a self-learner, I wrote about it here. And in terms of when to start using it and and how it compares to An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese, I wrote about it here.

Finally, to really get a feel for Tobira it would be helpful to look literally look inside and explore it yourself. At the time of this writing, chapter 4 and 5 are made freely available for viewing online by the publisher. Go to the publisher’s website with this link and see chapter 4 by clicking where it says Click on サンプルページを見る View Sample Pages(.pdf). Go to Tobira’s companion website with this link and see chapter 5 by clicking where it says Click on Look [at] Sample Pages(PDF).

Tobira’s Rich Online Resources

There is a lot packed into the main textbook, but Tobira is also very heavy on web-based resources. The accompanying audio files for Tobira are all available on the companion website. You can listen right on the site or there is an option to download. You could listen right now if you wanted with this link.

For each chapter there is also video about the topic! It’s similar to the reading passage, but it’s actually different content, this is great for extra practice. Plus, there is a worksheet that goes along with each video. The worksheet is in Japanese and tests you with questions about the video content.

Other resources found on the companion site include:

  • Flashcards. All the vocabulary can be downloaded and used with Anki
  • Worksheets with grammar exercises for the grammar points of each chapter
  • A kanji practice site
  • Links to external resources like websites for viewing Japanese TV news programs.

There is also something called Language Partner Online (LPO). This is pretty unique. For 9 of the 15 chapters there is a dialogue, written in both Japanese and English, played out by 2 characters. There are 3 videos associated with the dialogue. One is the dialogue with both characters speaking, in the other two videos, one of the two characters is not there, you play the part of the missing character. There is a pause where the missing character’s line should be, and during that pause, you say the line.

Power Up Your Kanji Workbook

The Powering Up Your Kanji workbook is for learners who are interested in acquiring knowledge of kanji and learning to write it. It’s also for people who are looking for some practice exercises with an answer key. I would say only get this workbook if one or both of those apply, especially the former. It has 15 chapters covering the same topics as the main textbook. So, it is essentially an extension of the main book, but focussing on Kanji. A total of 800 kanji are covered, 297 should be review from beginner level, 503 are new.

Chapters start off by introducing you in detail to the 35 or so kanji from the corresponding chapter of the main textbook. You will learn:

  • Stroke order
  • The meaning of the kanji
  • Onyomi 音読みand kunyomi 訓読み (readings), examples of words where each reading is used, and example sentences using these words
  • Several other examples of words that use the kanji

Essentially, to help you recognize and memorize the kanji, there are about 10 different kinds of exercises to help you practice from different angles such as: writing the corresponding hiragana spelling of kanji words, filling in a blank with a word written in kanji, creating kanji from radicals… Use this link and click where it says サンプルページを見る View Sample Pages(.pdf)to have a look at sample of the kanji workbook.

Grammar Power Workbook

The Grammar Power Workbook book gives you the opportunity to practice using grammar and vocabulary from the corresponding chapters of the main textbook. As mentioned, actual application and practice of the grammar and vocabulary you have learned is essential to solidify your knowledge and keep the information stored in long term memory so you can use it freely in future real-life situations. This workbook is a worthwhile investment. 

In the foundation section 基礎練習, there are guided exercises of each grammar point, fill in the blanks and select the most appropriate item type questions. You focus on one grammar point per exercise. Answers are at the back of the book, but in the Note to Students at the start of the workbook it cautions that not all of the correct answers for each exercise are listed in the answer key… From my experience, the vast majority are there, so no worries.

The application section 応用練習 also contains guided exercises, but it’s up to you choose the most appropriate grammar point that fits the context. Also, instead of just filling in one word, there are exercises in which you fill in half a sentence.

Expansion Section発展練習. This is where you really push yourself. You write a paragraph about something related to the corresponding chapter topic e.g., ‘write about a popular sport in your country.’ You are also given a short list of grammar points of which you are supposed to include as many as possible in your paragraph. For self-learners wanting to check their work, the best thing will be to have a native speaking tutor review it.

Use this link and click where it says サンプルページを見る View Sample Pages(.pdf)to have a look at sample of the grammar workbook.

Colten Dumonceau

My goal is to provide information that will help you learn Japanese as quickly and effectively as possible. I have spent more than ten years learning Japanese, mostly self-taught, from absolute beginner to an advanced level. I believe its possible to go much faster than I did. Please let me share with you the best learning strategies I have uncovered.

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