How To Improve Japanese Reading Comprehension

I wanted to do something a little different from my normal posts and spend some time talking about how to improve your Japanese reading comprehension.

In this article I am going to talk about some strategies you can use to go from understanding very little, perhaps only a simple phrase or greeting, to reading and understanding entire books.

I’m assuming that you already know how to read kana and are at least familiar with what kanji are. Let’s start from that point of comprehension and see how we can take it all the way to the end.

Individual Words

Once you understand kana (and a little kanji) you can read Japanese at a really basic level. This should be super exciting as it allows you to start tapping into a completely foreign language.

At this point the best thing to do is start learning individual words that can be used all on their own. The reason why I recommend this is because it will allow you to practice reading Japanese in a way that is entirely comprehensible.

What kinds of words are these? Words like:

  • こんにちは (Hello)
  • ありがとう (Thank you)
  • はい (Yes)

These words allow you to make Japanese come alive as you not only encounter them often in novels and manga, but they are ones that you can incorporate into your own life and start using, even if you only say them to yourself.

This initial state won’t last very long however, as there are a limited amount of useful “single words” like this. Pretty soon you will move on to short sentences as soon as you start learning some basic Japanese grammar.

Short Sentences

Learning individual words is a great place to start, but pretty soon you need to move on to sentences for a couple reasons.

The first reason is because grammar is an abstract concept and it really only makes sense within the context of a full sentence along with solid words like nouns, adjectives, verbs, and so on.

The second reason why sentences are so powerful is that in many situations they can change the meaning of a particular word. Because of this, there are many times when you can only learn what a Japanese word truly means when you read it in natural context.

Since this is only the second stage in improving reading comprehension, I recommend using short sentences, ones that contain 5-12 words total, that are easy for you to understand and typically contain only one new word or grammar pattern for you to learn.

  • これは私のペンです。
  • kore wa watashi no pen desu.
  • This is my pen.

If you know all of the vocabulary and grammar contained in the above sentence, then a good new sentence to read would be one that changes ペン (pen) with 車 (car).

Another example might be changing です (is) with じゃない (is not).

The point is to keep the sentences short, simple, and easy for you to understand. This allows you to start building a solid foundation of vocabulary and an understanding of how grammar works in the language.

Where can you find these kinds of sentences? I think the best place to start is with the example sentences that are provided in your beginner textbook or Japanese course.

What I would typically do when I was in this stage was read through a chapter of my book and then create a flashcard for each of the sentences.

Then I could go through the flashcards each day as a review before continuing through the book to learn new concepts. This allowed me to keep improving my reading ability while keeping the information bite-sized.

I used the free flashcard program Anki.

How long should you do this type of reading for? Hmm… A while.

I wish I could give an exact time length, but unfortunately the only way to get better at reading is to read a lot.

If you read every single day, you could probably move on from this beginner stuff to the next level in three months. Even if you don’t feel ready, I would advise you wait no longer than a year before kicking it up a notch.

Simple Paragraphs

At some point, you have to force yourself to leave the comfort of short sentences and move on to reading actual paragraphs.

I recommend ones that are simple and easy to understand, like NHK’s News Web Easy, when you are first starting out since you’re already going to be challenging yourself by increasing the word-count to from 5-12 words to 100-500 words.

Because of this, you usually won’t get the benefit of only having to learn a single new word. Instead, you’ll generally have to look up a dozen or so unfamiliar items in order to understand what they all mean and how they fit into the scenario.

But the real power of reading entire paragraphs, instead of just a bunch of short unrelated sentences, is that often times in a paragraph there will be a line of dialog that refers back to something mentioned earlier.

  • このため農林水産省は…
  • kono tame nourin suisan shou wa…
  • Because of this, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries…

As you can see from the beginning of this new sentence, it is already mentioning an event that was previously talked about and is relevant to understanding what is about to be revealed.

This is requires a much broader level of reading comprehension than the earlier stages because you have to read and understand the early stuff, remember it, and then be able to connect the dots when it is brought up again later.

In other words, understanding a paragraph is much more than just understanding a bunch of sentences. It’s grasping the connection between each sentence and seeing what the bigger picture is all about.

When I first started doing this, it was pretty tough. I read a little over 1,000 news articles (I guess I’m a masochist), but fortunately I was able to read them all on LingQ which made looking up all the new words a piece of cake.

Full Chapters

Finally we get to the big stuff: Reading full chapters in Japanese!

At this point in the journey if you’ve been faithfully reading full paragraphs, then it should be a fairly easy transition into tackling a chapter in a novel.

The primary difference is one of stamina. Instead of reading 100-500 words like before, you will most likely be reading 1,000-3,000 words depending on the book.

In addition to that, you’re likely to encounter a lot of new words which makes looking them up all the more time-consuming, unless you have a good system to handle it.

So, at this point you just need to keep reading full paragraphs like you were before, but you’re going to extend it out and need to remember a lot more of what happened in the story.

A good way to ensure you know what’s going on (comprehension) is to periodically stop and ask yourself some questions about the material.

Good questions to ask are things like:

  • What’s happening in this story?
  • Who are the main people?
  • What is motivating them to take action?

Any question that makes you pause and reflect upon the information is a good one to ask in order to make sure you are understanding what’s going on.

This kind of questioning helps you to keep your mind engaged with what’s happening and to think deeper about the story.

As long as you’re genuinely interested in the material and you can mostly understand what you’re reading, then you should be fine.

I wouldn’t worry about having perfect comprehension of the chapter, but if you can understand 80% or more of it then you should be good to go onto the next one.

You can always come back at a later date and reread it if you really want to. The challenge at this point is to get your mind used to reading a lot of Japanese in a structured way.

The first book that I ever read took me over a month. When I reread it a year later I finished it in just over a week and I even understood it a lot better.

Don’t expect to be perfect. In fact, don’t even try to be perfect!

Just try to get through it while understanding what you can. A lot of times full comprehension only comes with consuming a large quantity of Japanese.

Just keep moving through the material and it will gradually begin to make more and more sense as you get more exposure to the language, the words, and the common grammar patterns that you encounter.

Cultural Communication Styles

Something that should be mentioned specifically about Japanese is that they communicate very differently from Americans (and other native English speakers) due to our cultural differences.

What that means is you have to understand more than just the words that are written on the page.

Japanese is considered a “high context language” which means that what is not said is often times even more important than what is actually said.

Because of this, it’s important to also include a study of Japanese culture and communication styles along with your daily reading practices which we’ve spent all this time talking about.

When a Japanese person says 会議を始めたいと思います it is literally translated as “I think I would like to start the meeting” in English.

However, what that person is actually saying is “I want to start the meeting.”

Despite the fact that they used と思います for “I think” they are not actually thinking about it. They know full well that they want to start it, but since the Japanese culture is one of “harmony” it is more culturally acceptable to be differential in this manner.

Another key aspect of understanding Japanese communication has to do with the concepts of “inner and outer circles” of groups, and the hierarchies of social status.

This is important because it will help you understand when people are showing others respect, and when they are intentionally showing them disrespect.

It can also help understand how close one Japanese person feels they are emotionally to another by their word selection.

While it is beyond the scope of this article to cover Japanese communication styles, I mentioned the importance of it here briefly so that you know to spend some extra time going over it.

Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  1. Read Japanese every single day
  2. Start small and grow to bigger material
  3. Ask yourself questions about the content
  4. Study Japanese communication styles

If you have any questions or comments about anything I’ve talked about today, please let me know down below. Thanks!

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