Tactics

How to Get Better at Reading Japanese

It’s been said that spoken Japanese and written Japanese are like two separate languages!

I’d have to say that I see some truth in that statement. While the two obviously work together and collectively make up the Japanese language as a whole, there are aspects of both that have to be learned and used independently of one another.

The good news is that your current knowledge of the spoken part of Japanese is going to come in handy later on in this article. More specifics on that in step #4 below.

Most people who study Japanese know the two kana scripts (hiragana and katakana), and a decent amount of kanji. I find that this is true even for beginners.

If this is you, then congratulations: You can read Japanese!

I’m going to show you how to get better at reading Japanese.

Let me explain the two different types of reading, which one you should be focusing on, and how to guarantee your success when it comes to improving your reading comprehension.

If you pick the right materials and use a solid approach, you’ll not only learn Japanese, but you will also enjoy the process along the way!

The Two Types of Reading and Their Benefits

There are two types of reading:

  1. Intensive Reading
  2. Extensive Reading

Intensive Reading is the kind of reading that you’re probably already doing. It is when you read a short amount of text in Japanese and you try to understand all of it.

Every. Single. Word.

If you use a grammar book to learn, such as A Guide to Understanding Japanese Grammar or Japanese in MangaLand, then you generally read about how a certain aspect of grammar works, and then you read a few examples in Japanese that show the grammar rule in action.

The whole example sentence is probably 5-10 words long.

Using intensive reading in Japanese is vital, but not sufficient!

It’s great to grasp the concept, but often times there’s just not enough exposure to really lock it into your long term memory and move it from a conscious understanding to an unconscious understanding.

How can you unconsciously understand something? They same way you can unconsciously drive your car. We all do it.

But besides engaging in the slow, precise process of intensive reading, you also need to use the second kind of reading, and in mass quantities too!

Extensive Reading is the flip side of the coin. You read lots of material with the intention of having fun or simply enjoying the material that’s being read, but not necessarily understanding 100% of it. It’s a very immersive type approach to learning.

What you’re trying to do is just “get the big picture” of what’s going on.

  • What’s the story about?
  • Who are the characters?
  • What are they doing?

When most people read books or stories this way in their native language, they don’t really remember the exact words that they just read two minutes ago. Rather, they kind of remember what happened and how it lead to where the story is at now.

If you run into a word you don’t know, you usually try to understand it from the context, and if that fails, you just skip it!

Move on!

Why would you let a single word stop you from progressing through the plot and having fun?

Generally speaking, you wouldn’t.

And yet, that is exactly what people do when they read Japanese novels and manga!

They encounter a word they don’t know, and immediately stop to look it up and understand it before moving on.

Here’s the main problem with that: when you’re at a beginner or intermediate level, there are going to be hundreds and thousands of words you don’t know!

You end up spending all your time translating, and after 30 minutes you’re not even past the first couple of pages! It leads to frustration and eventually quitting.

So here’s the solution: let go of having to understand everything that you read!

I know it sounds weird, but this is similar to how you learned to read as a kid. You read a short book and were excited when you got the words right, even if you didn’t really understand what they meant.

Here’s a secret: the human brain is constantly looking for and analyzing patterns. This happens all the time!

What that means is that when you get enough exposure to Japanese, you brain starts to figure out how to understand it and use it correctly, even if you didn’t look the specific rules up.

Trust me, it is a weird feeling, but an awesome one when you read a word that you didn’t previously know, but you still correctly figured out the meaning of it just from how it was used in a particular situation.

But you have to read enough material for this to start happening!

The Best Way to Do Extensive Reading

So you know that you need to read lots and lot of Japanese words from books, manga, and whatever else you can get your hands on.

You also know that you’re going to read it, and not understand everything (or even most of it) and that’s totally okay.

So now that you know those two important things, how exactly do you go about engaging in extensive reading?

Here are the four steps that I recommend:

(1) Ditch Rōmaji

First of all, you’re going to have to know both Hiragana and Katakana. There’s really no getting around that fact, as these are the symbols of the written part of the language.

Even though you could technically use Rōmaji to read Japanese, I strongly advise that you don’t. Rōmaji is okay when you are brand new to Japanese because it allows you to start speaking the language right away.

But the problem is that it doesn’t truly represent the native sounds of the language, so it’s likely that you will Americanize your Japanese words when you speak them.

Not only that, but Rōmaji is pretty much a tool only used by foreigners. The Japanese people don’t use it when they write books or create manga, so you’re going to have to abandon Rōmaji sooner or later since you probably won’t be able to find any books to read with it.

Might as well learn the kanas from the start so you can start reading Japanese right away.

(2) Read to the End

This part is essential!

The biggest reason for giving up the need to understand everything you read is so that you can actually read to the end of the chapter, and then the end of the book.

When you do that, you feel like you’ve made progress!

This is something that’s not talked about a lot when it comes to learning Japanese, but it is actually a vital part of the journey.

If you feel like you are getting better it, and going somewhere, then it creates positive feelings which then spur you on to read even more.

It’s what’s known as a virtuous cycle.

The first time you read to the end of a chapter, you might only understand 10%.

But that 10% should be exciting!

You are reading and understanding (at least partially) a new language! How cool is that?!

I’ve always felt that understanding even a little Japanese was very special since their written scripts are totally different from our English alphabet.

If you see some Spanish, you might be able to recognize the word if it looks kind of like the English counterpart. But this won’t happen in Japanese, since they don’t use our letters.

After you’ve read to the end of the book, give yourself a high-five! Now guess what the next step is.

(3) Read it Again

When I was a kid, my parents had me read Green Eggs and Ham to them over and over again for weeks. That’s how kids begin to understand what all the different words mean and how grammar works together with vocabulary.

Once you’ve read a book (of even a chapter) you feel great about what you’ve accomplished!

But then you get to go back over it again and this time you’re going to understand that same 10% that you did on the first read through, plus a little more the second time around. Maybe this time it increases to 20% total comprehension.

This second read through is when you should pick out a few words and look up their definitions. How about the 5-10 words that occurred the most often?

This is going to make that second read through even more enjoyable since you will guarantee that you understand more than you did the first time.

But be sure to keep this research part to a minimum since you still need to spend 90% of your time actually reading in Japanese.

The first read through is always the hardest. But the second time is easier. And the third time even more so.

Eventually, you’ll get to the point where you understand about 80% of everything you are reading and then something magical happens: you learn new words without looking them up!

What happens is that you understand all the words around the one word you don’t know, and this context helps you to learn the new word’s meaning and usage.

For example, If I said to you “Hey, have you seen my さいふ? I took it out of my backpocket when I paid for my food, but now I can’t seem to find it. It has my driver’s license and everything in it, so I really have to find it!”

Chances are from that sentence, you can figure out that 「さいふ」 means “wallet” in Japanese.

This is the point in learning where you’re fluent enough in the language to use Japanese to learn Japanese!

It’s really fricken’ exciting and something you should be looking forward to!

But in order to get there, you gotta’ keep reading, even when you don’t understand it all. Just trust in the process and never stop doing the work.

Ideally you will re-read a book until you understand about 90% or more of everything. At that point, it’s a good idea to pick something new to prevent yourself from getting bored.

But on the bright side, re-reading like this can save you a lot of money since you spend so much time on each book!

(4) Read Out Loud

Some people think that reading Japanese words out loud is unnecessary, but I think there are some very good reasons why you should do it.

First of all, it accelerates learning since you are not only seeing the words, but hearing them and feeling them too. Anytime you can increase your involvement in the learning process, you learn faster and remember longer.

This is what’s known as “multi-sensory learning” and it’s been shown that it is superior to “uni-sensory learning” such as reading sliently [source].

Secondly, it helps you to start thinking in Japanese. This is another reason why it’s good to ditch Rōmaji, but what I want to bring to your attention is that fact that most people who are learning Japanese are still thinking in English!

This is one of the main things that holds people back from breaking out of the infamous “intermediate plateau” and you can give yourself an unfair advantage by taking opportunities to turn off your native “thinking-language” and start doing it all in Japanese.

You see, if you just read Japanese, but don’t speak it out loud, then you will probably do something like this:

-You see: 水を飲む

-You think: “Ahh, ok so I see the word for ‘water’ and then there’s the “direct object particle” and it’s followed by the verb ‘to drink’ so this whole thing means ‘drink water’ got it!”

Don’t feel bad if you do this, it’s natural for your brain to do what’s easiest. This is okay when you are first starting out, but it will hold you back at higher levels.

But when you read out loud, your words and thoughts are going to both be in Japanese, since you will think the same thing that you speak. It tends to go more like this:

-You see: 水を飲む

-You say: みずをのむ

-You think:

 

Okay, maybe you don’t think of a drop of water drinking water. Is that cannibalism? But you get the point I’m trying to make!

Rather than doing translation work from Japanese to English in order for you to understand what’s written, by keeping the whole process in Japanese you will omit the English language and just go straight to the mental picture of what you read.

It feels weird and awkward at first, but most new things do. You’ll get used to it.

Bottom line is this: Stick with reading Japanese out loud and not only should your intonation and pronunciation improve, but you’ll be spending lots of time thinking in Japanese which will help you to reach an advanced level of the language.

What Should You Read?

So now that you know which type of reading you should be doing, and how to go about it, you’re left with only one question to answer: what should you read?!

Personally, I like the saying “begin at the end” which I would apply to studying Japanese in this way:

If your end goal is to be able to read manga, then read manga right now. If you want to eventually be able to read light novels, then study light novels right now.

There are actually a lot of different types of reading material out there that you can use and enjoy. Each one has their own advantages and disadvantages.

Manga for example, is very dialog heavy. So when you read it, you are actually leaning a lot of spoken Japanese which can then be used when you watch anime or talk with your friend in Japanese.

On the other hand, the dialog can be a little disjointed at times (just like normal speech) which can make it harder to follow at first since you study all these structure rules in the written language, but the spoken language doesn’t give a crap about ’em.

Light novels on the other hand are going to be describing the setting a lot since they don’t have pictures (like manga) to handle that aspect of the story. So the grammar will be a lot more strict and rule driven since it has a lot of narration.

This can be good or bad, just depending on your own personal preference.

But either way (whatever you decide to choose) I recommend that you only buy manga/books if they have this one thing:

FURIGANA – ふりがな

I’m sure most of you know exactly what that is, but for those who are newer, I will explain. Furigana are miniaturized hiragana that go above (or to the right) of kanji in order to show the pronunciation.

  • Kanji without furigana: ​一石二鳥
    .
  • Kanji with furigana: ​一石二鳥いっせきにちょう

See the little hiragana about the second example?

They are intended for Japanese children who haven’t learning all 2,000 daily kanji just yet. Which means that they are perfect for you too if you also haven’t mastered all the kanji yet!

Even if you do know all the kanji individually, there are still a lot of compound words that use different readings from the norm. Sometimes you just gotta get enough exposure to them and remember how to say them through repeated exposure.

Then you have to pick the format of the book that you want: digital or physical.

I personally prefer physical books and manga since I like the feel of them in my hands, but I still buy digital ones every now and then if it’s cheaper, only available in that format, or I plan on traveling a lot.

Either way, there are lots of options available to you (places to buy) for books in Japanese. If you live in a big city, you will probably be able to just walk down town and pop into a bookstore for some.

But if you’re like me and live in a smaller town, then online is the way to go. You can get a lot of them off of Amazon.com (that’s what I do), just make sure that you buy the Japanese version and be prepared to wait a little while for it to arrive.

Oh yeah, zero wait time is another reason to buy digital!

Truth be told, you only need one book and it should last you quite a while as you re-read it 2, 5, or 10 times before moving on to the next one.

Still not sure where to start? How about The #1 Recommended Japanese Manga for Beginners!

Extra Tips for Reading in Japanese

One strategy is to buy both the English and Japanese version of the book and then read the English one first so that you already know the overall context when you start reading the Japanese book. That’s totally fine as it will help you figure out new words faster than if it was a totally new story to you.

But for me, I kind of like the opposite strategy of buying manga that is only available in Japanese as kind of a motivational boost to reading it over and over again. There’s just something exciting about reading a story that’s only accessible in the foreign language!

Another strategy is to buy multiple books from the same series, since it will tend to have a unique group of words that get repeated over and over again.

For example, if you buy a mecha series then you’ll spend some time learning robot-related vocabulary at first, but then you’ll see those same words again and again as you read each book which will allow you to focus more on learning other new words instead.

And the last tactic that I’ll mention is that you can buy both the book and the audio version of it if you want to practice The Shadowing Technique to accelerate your results even further.

The Harry Potter books are a great series you can get in Japanese for both book format and audio format.

It’s really up to whatever you feel will work best for you personally.

Start Reading and Never Stop

If you’re read this far, you about to hit 3,000 English words – congratulations!

I could actually sum up this entire post with this statement:

The best way to get better at reading Japanese, is to consistently read lots and lots of Japanese.

How’s that for a quick summary?!

But in all honestly, you probably read hundreds and thousands of English words each and every day. That’s why you’re so good at it.

But how many Japanese words do your read every day? Is it hundreds? Is it dozens?

Let’s crank that number up to at least hundreds of Japanese words each day, and perhaps even a thousand or two.

Read Japanese every single day, even if it’s only for 10 minutes and you only understand 5% of it!

Just like the saying “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” you can and will become great at reading Japanese as long as you keep learning, keep practicing, and keep reading Japanese!

Now I want to hear from you!

What books/manga are you going to read in Japanese? Do you have any tips of your own?

Share your thoughts with a comment below!

4 Comments

  • - Bill

    That’s interesting. My daughter and I are currently in the beginning stages of learning Portuguese and I think a lot of what you’re saying is transferable to other languages as well. I’d never thought about it, but maybe once we’ve learned enough words to be somewhat comfortable tracking down some books would be a great idea. Thanks for that.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, for sure reading native material in any language will definitely help you to improve. It’s really a great way to take in lots and lot of information that sounds and feel natural, with common words and the correct use of grammar.

      I love it because when you find books that are interesting and fun, you don’t feel like you’re working. You feel like you’re having fun!

      And when you can making learning a language a fun thing to do, not only will you do it more and therefore learn more, but studies have actually shown that your brain is able to take in more information and learn better when it’s in a state of enjoyment, rather than when you feel like you “have to do” something and it’s all work, work, work.

  • asmithxu

    These suggestions are fantastic. I do tend to get bogged down when I read because I want to know what every single word means, so I am going to start reading straight through and reading more when I study a different language. I also like the idea of reading the book over and over again. I haven’t done something like that since I was a kid, but looking back on it, it really helped.

    How big do you think that your vocabulary should be before you start reading in Japanese? Also, this may be random, when you watch TV in Japanese do you think that it is better to have Japanese or English subtitles?

    Thanks, and thank you so much for the tips!

    • Nick Hoyt

      To avoid feeling frustrated, it would probably be best if you knew at least a little amount of common words in Japanese, like greetings, name suffixes (san, chan, etc), ending particles, and some common verbs like “to go, to eat, to drink, etc”

      This would allow you to understand at least some words that you come across on every page, and for the verbs in particular you will get to see different conjugations. 

      More basic manga/books such as the really popular one Yotsubato are going to be the best place to start since the words are simple, there’s a lot of repetition, and pictures in the manga provide enough context to figure new words out. 

      If you try reading in Japanese and it’s just too much, you might set it aside for a month and really focus on learning more Japanese through your course or textbook and then come back to reading explicitly and see how much easier it is the second time around.

      As for watching Japanese, I think if it’s a brand new show, it’s fine to use English subtitles to understand the context, but then you should re-watch the episode again without the English SUBs so that you can really focus in on the Japanese being spoken.

      I actually wrote about how you can learn Japanese by watching anime here, in case that’s something you’re interested in!

      Thanks!

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