This post is going to be a top-down look at how to read Japanese novels. There’s a lot of information that I want to share with you, and I want to make the information practical and accessible to everyone, so I’ll assume that you are new to the language.
Because I’m going to be talking about a lot of different concepts, and linking to other related articles that I’ve written (I recommend checking them out), you might find it useful to bookmark or save this page so that you can refer back to it anytime in the future.
Let’s start off by talking about levels of Japanese. For the purposes of this post I am going to divide them into three:
Within each of the sections below I’ll talk about how I recommend handling a particular aspect of Japanese depending on which level you are at.
Below is a table of contents that you can use for easier navigation. Let’s begin!
The Writing System
In order to read Japanese novels, you have to be able to understand the written system. This is usually broken down into the following three parts:
The first two are both considered “kana” so we could actually say that there are only two parts to the written system, but how you categorize it isn’t really all that important. The main thing is that you have to learn them.
The first thing to do when you are a beginner is to start learning hiragana.
These are characters that each represent a sound in Japanese (much like our English alphabet does) and there are a little under 50 basic forms.
There are some modified forms as well, but once you know the basics it is incredibly easy to understand the rest.
Take some time and learn all of these characters. I recommend that you practice writing them out as well as reading them. If you do, it will most likely take you a couple of days to a week to have them all memorized.
Then the next step is to learn katakana.
These symbols are pretty similar to hiragana (some even look the same) but they serve a different function in the language.
If we wanted to compare these two “kana” scripts to our alphabet, I would say that hiragana are like lower-case letters and katakana are like upper-case letters.
I recommend you also learn how to write katakana, and if you already know hiragana then it will probably only take you a couple of days to learn them all.
The final section is learning kanji and I think that you can get started on them during the beginner stage, but you probably won’t have them all learned until you are somewhere in the intermediate level.
I say this because there are literally thousands of them!
That being said, you only need to learn the 2136 Jōyō Kanji while you’re at the intermediate level.
Once you’ve are at the advanced level you can spend some time learning more if you would like, but this list is what the Japanese government has mandated be taught in public schools, so it is the minimum that you need to learn.
What makes kanji so special? Well, each one is a character that contains a reading (just like the kana) and also a meaning. In fact, many kanji contain multiple potential readings and meanings depending on the context that they appear in.
If I had to give an example of this that you are already familiar with, I would say that kanji are kind of like emojis. Here’s what I mean by that:
- I ❤️ Julie!
You no don’t understood that the heart meant “love” in the above message. You might even have read it as “heart” but with the meaning of love.
But what if we use that same symbol a little differently?
- Will you be my ❤️?
In this case, the exact same emoji would be read as “valentine” which has a related, but different meaning from the first one. It also has a completely different “reading” or spelling.
Now imagine doing that exact same thing, but for every third word in a sentence. That ought to give you an idea of how important it is to understand kanji.
Don’t worry about the large number of them, you will be learning them over time and before you know it you’ll have them all down.
Once you can read Japanese kana, you can start learning words.
Renowned linguist Steve Kaufmann has learned 20 languages (including Japanese) and continues to add more every year.
He says that the best metric of language learning is word count. Plain and simple, the number of words you can understand in a foreign language, the better off you are in terms of both comprehension and your potential to communicate.
So how do we go about learning new words?
When I took Spanish in college, I remember getting lists of words to memorize that we would be tested on during the next session. Unfortunately, this never really worked out for me or my classmates.
Flip things around to today, and I am able to recognize and understand 10,000’s of Japanese words while I’m reading books and manga.
So what changed? My method.
The basic idea is that words are easiest to learn when they are a part of a meaningful sentence that you can fully comprehend.
At the beginner stage, you want to keep these sentences short and review them periodically. Our brains naturally forget new words unless we anchor them deeply the first time or review them within a couple days (Michael Campbell).
I recommend creating flashcards of the example sentences your textbook or course uses.
Once you get to the intermediate and advanced levels, you’re going to be spending more of your time reading news articles, blog posts, perhaps even children’s books and the like, so there will be less of a need to do these reviews.
Doing lots of extensive reading in this way allows you to naturally re-encounter new words, but at the beginning stage you have to create a system to ensure that it happens.
Something else to keep in mind is that during the beginner stage, you will want to use full translations so that you can understand the message that is being communicated.
However, once you leave the flash cards behind and begin reading more natural content, it’s a good idea to only look up the new words you don’t understand in English and spend the rest of your reading time immersed in Japanese.
Grammar is an fickle thing.
On its own it is an abstract concept that doesn’t really have any meaning. Yet combined with vocabulary, it can be used to communicate and understand messages that range from the simple all the way up to the complex.
Japanese grammar gets categorized into the same three stages that we’ve been using throughout this post, and my own personal thoughts are that you should learn the beginner stuff because it appears in practically every single sentence.
I also think it’s wise to study intermediate grammar because even though it’s not as prevalent as the basics, it will still appear often enough to where you need to know it in order to understand what’s going on.
My basic philosophy for learning intermediate grammar is the same for understanding basic Japanese grammar.
The condensed version is to read a concise explanation of the new grammar point in English so that you can fully understand it, and then read lots of different example sentences that show it in action.
If possible, use 10-20 examples. If you can’t get a hold of that many, then just do the best you can with what you have.
The only one that I don’t think you need to proactively study is advanced grammar. It’s not all that common to run into, and many times you can deduce its meaning from context and your understanding of the basic and intermediate stuff.
I say this because a lot of advanced grammar has a counterpoint in intermediate. Usually the difference is one of formality, rather than explicit meaning.
At any rate, I recommend that you study advanced grammar re-actively. That means you only look up the meaning and usage of the grammar when you run into it in a book or manga.
This will help you save a lot of time (and frustration) with learning Japanese since you’ll only spend time on the advanced grammar that you actually run in to, and you don’t need to waste time on the stuff that you’ll never see.
There are different strategies that you should use at different stages of learning.
If I were to give you a Japanese book and tell you to start reading it while you’re still a beginner, you would probably struggle through it, spend all of your time looking up new words, and not enjoy the process at all.
But if you read books as your main learning method while at the advanced state, you would not only have fun (if you picked a book you like), but you would also get a lot out of the experience.
The point I’m trying to make is that we need to pick a method that will match your level so that you can continue to learn and make progress, and not feel overwhelmed.
I’ve laid out my thoughts before in detail on improving reading comprehension, so let me give you a shorter version here that leaves a lot of the detailed explanations out.
When you are first starting out, you should focus on using short phrases. Combine this with some sort of flashcard review and it will allow you to learn a lot of common words in conjunction with the basic grammar of the language.
Then once you’re at the intermediate level you can start reading paragraphs from native Japanese sources. You’ll still need to look new words up, and you’ll probably run into intermediate grammar, but you can ditch the flash cards and instead focus on the good stuff.
Reading paragraphs takes more concentration and a desire to understand the overall message that the writer intends, but it’s a nice middle ground between short sentences on flash cards and entire chapters found in books.
Once you’re pretty good at reading this medium length material, you can start thinking about finding a book you’re interested in and start reading your first full-length chapter.
Here are some reading tips that you might find useful.
When working on reading comprehension, you’ll notice some differences between the levels.
From beginner to intermediate the biggest change is that sentences will often refer back to earlier ones and you have to be able to understand which part from before the author is specifically talking about.
When you go from intermediate to advanced the biggest changes are that you’ll need a lot more endurance (chapters can be 10 times longer than just a paragraph) and you will spend a lot of time looking up new words.
I’ve head that authors are sometimes called “word smiths” because they not only use a large variety of words in their books, but they are also constantly finding new ways to use old words.
This can make things tough when you are learning Japanese. In other words, get used to looking up words that only appear once in the entire story!
All joking aside, this is a fantastic way to build up a large passive vocabulary. There’s no need to be able to use these words right now, you’re only goal should be to understand what they mean in the context that they appear in.
For me, the best resource that I’ve ever found for reading native Japanese content and looking up new words quickly and easily is the language learning platform LingQ.
The Path, The Journey
So far in this article I’ve been talking about each of these different elements in isolation. But ideally you would be working on multiple parts simultaneously since they reinforce one another.
Here’s kind of how I envision this happening if you are brand new to learning Japanese:
First – Learn how to read (and write) both hiragana and katakana.
Second – Start learning kanji, basic grammar, and common vocabulary through which ever book or Japanese course you have access to. Make sure you create flash cards of the example sentences so that you can review them daily.
Third – Continue learning kanji (yes, there’s a lot of them!) while learning intermediate grammar and more common vocabulary. At this point you’ll are likely to start learning some low frequency words as well which is totally fine and a good thing.
Fourth – Once you’ve gone through your Japanese textbook or course and are familiar with both basic and intermediate grammar you can start reading Japanese paragraphs. This will probably be somewhere in the 3-6 month mark depending on how much time you spend each day studying.
Also, there’s no need to memorize the grammar rules, just get familiar with them and know where to look them up in the future if necessary.
Fifth – Once you’re able to get through paragraphs fairly easily (things like short blog posts, easy news articles, etc) look for a Japanese novel that you genuinely want to read and buy it.
Sixth – Use everything you’ve learned in your journey thus far and read that first chapter. Don’t worry about understanding it perfectly the first time, just get through it.
Again, depending on how much time you spend each day learning Japanese, you could hit this point at 6-12 months. It might be a little more, or it might be a little less, but I think this is a pretty accurate time frame.
One thing to keep in mind as you go from one stage to the next is that you probably won’t feel ready for it. Every time I’ve ever kicked my learning up to a higher level I felt overwhelmed for two weeks. But if you stick with it, then a funny thing happens and the harder material just starts to feel normal.
Here’s my advice: hang in there!
Once you’ve read one chapter, you can read another. Pretty soon you will be through the entire book and you will have read your very first Japanese novel!
Although I’ve written this post as if you’re brand new to Japanese, I think that the majority of people who actually read it will already be familiar with the language.
Because of that, you can analyze the recommended path that I’ve laid out and jump in wherever you feel is the correct part for you.
There is a lot of information that I shared here today. It has been based on both my own experience with learning Japanese, and the information that other people shared with me on what worked for them.
If you’ve got any tips or advice that you feel would be helpful for people to know, then by all means share it down below in the comments section.
Header image credit: Bruno Cordioli
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: