5 Tips For Reading Japanese

I’ve been reading Japanese for several years now and I was thinking about the things that I’ve learned that made a big difference with overcoming the difficulty of the language. Today I’m going to share 5 tips for reading Japanese that will make the overall process a lot easier for you.

You can use just one of these tips, or all of them! The more that you incorporate them into your daily life the easier reading Japanese will become.

Let’s hop right in with number one and see how you can make reading Japanese a much more enjoyable activity!

1. Read Digitally

The first tip is to read Japanese digitally instead of from a physical book, paper, or whatever.

This could mean reading Japanese on your computer or it could mean using an app (like Kindle) on a device such as your smartphone.

The primary reason why I say this is because reading Japanese digitally, where you can highlight words and then copy and paste them, makes looking up the meanings of new words a whole lot easier!

When I first started reading a Japanese book, I would often run into new words and a lot of times the kanji didn’t have any furigana to help me out.

That meant I had to put the book down and get a dictionary where I looked it up by either radical or stroke order. The process generally took a couple of minutes before I got an answer and could get back to reading.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of new words when you’re reading a book!

Because of this, I ended up spending all of my time looking up words and I didn’t even get through a single page.

Which is why I recommend doing the opposite. If you read on a digital device that allows you to select the words, you can then input them into an electronic dictionary and see what the word means instantly.

Even better, if you use an assisted reader like LingQ you can actually save the meaning to the new word within the program so that the next time you encounter it, you can see the meaning with one simple click.

Reading Japanese digitally allows you to spend more of your time reading and less of your time looking up new words.

2. Read One Author’s Works

This next tip is one that I received from Professor Arguelles.

He said that when you’re reading books, you should select one author and read a lot of the novels that they have written instead of reading a lot of different books from different people.

The reason is because each author has their own “voice” or literary style that they tend to use when they write out their stories. This includes both turns of phrases and the vocabulary they draw from.

In other words, you’re making the overall process easy on yourself when you choose a book that’s written by an author from whom you’ve already read.

I did this by picking and reading a series. This of course ensures that all the books are from the same author and it also has the same characters, situation, location, and so on.

I chose the 三姉妹探偵団 series, in case you wanted to know.

From my experience doing this, I can tell you that the first book was hard to get through (due to the number of new words), but I noticed that the second book was a lot easier.

Then when I got to the third book, I felt the difficulty go down again. By the time I got to the fourth book, it was actually a fairly easy read since I didn’t have to spend too much time looking up new words.

To put some numbers on it, I would say that these estimates are fairly accurate for the number of new words that I encountered in each book:

  • Book 1: 3,000
  • Book 2: 1,500
  • Book 3: 1,200
  • Book 4: 800

I’m pulling these number off of memory, so don’t quote me exactly on them. The important thing to notice is not the absolute number, but rather the progression from a lot of unknown words, to a much smaller and more manageable level.

Even 800 new words might seem like a lot, but when the novel is 50,000 words it only actually accounts for 1.6% of the total words you read.

So the power of reading from one author is that you become better and better at understanding their style of writing and the words they tend to use. This allows you to make rapid progress on reading comprehension.

If you switch between authors a lot, then you don’t get this benefit as much. This is still true for me even today as there is a book I’ve been thinking about reading (銀河英雄伝説) but it’s got 3,200 new words for me and I just hadn’t felt like plowing through it yet.

Also, I just now realized that you might be wondering how I know the number of new words in a book before I read it. This is one of the features of reading digital books on LingQ.

It keeps track of the words you know, and then compares it to all of the words contained in a new book so that you have a fairly good idea how easy or difficult a new one will be.

3. Read Non-fiction

When you decide to start reading Japanese, there are a lot of options to choose from. One of the pieces of advice that I received from Steve Kaufmann was to start off by reading non-fiction material.

The reason is because most fiction books (including sci-fi and fantasy) use a lot of descriptive words and specialized vocabulary, which slows down the reading process since you spend a lot of time on the new words.

However, a lot of non-fiction things like news reports, blogs, history books, and the like tend to use more common words that you are already likely to know.

This means that you can get through the material a lot faster and therefore get a decent amount of reading experience under your belt.

The one think you have to keep in mind however, is that it’s best to choose material that you are naturally interested in. If you choose a news article, but it bores you, then you’re probably not going to stick with it for very long.

On the other hand, if you’re really excited about reading something then there’s a good chance you will continue reading it despite any difficulties that you encounter.

That brings us to tip #4:

4. Read Something Interesting

One of the most common pieces of advice that I hear from the language learning community in general is to “read children’s books” when you are starting out.

You know, the kinds of things that parents would read to their children before bedtime like fairy tales and such.

That’s not a bad idea since these are typically easy to understand, but I tend to find material aimed at young children to be not very interesting.

I’m not the only one who doesn’t really care for children’s book. I’ve even heard Olly Richards advise against it!

The thing that I want to talk about is enjoying the language learning process and having fun. This is something you can do when you pick material that naturally interests you.

The key question to ask and answer is: “Would I read this book in my native language?”

If your answer to that question is “No” then keep looking until you find one that makes you say “Yes!”

When you read something that you want to and that you naturally find interesting, you’re more motivated to read it every day and work through the tough parts.

I also believe that you learn the language better and faster when you are enjoying the process.

Although I don’t have any studies that I can share with you that support this, from my own experience I can tell you that I’ve always had an easier time remembering new words when they came from a something I really enjoyed reading.

I think it’s because having fun means you’re paying attention and fully engaging with the material, rather than just trying to get through it like we tend to do when we are bored.

5. Listen To What You Read

The final tip is one you might not expect since it involves listening!

The basic idea to listen to the same story or article that you are reading, but it doesn’t need to be at the exact same time. The important element is to consume the same information, but in a different form.

From my own experience I can tell you that it is a lot easier to understand spoken Japanese once I’ve already read the words that they are going to say.

On the flip side, there have been countless times when I read something and didn’t fully understand it until I heard the speaker read that same passage and then everything made sense.

I think it’s because the human voice is able to convey additional information through tone that is harder to grasp from words alone.

It might be the excitement in their voice, the annoyance, or the sarcasm. At any rate, I missed the true message when I only read the material, but once I heard it too I understood what the character was really saying.

It takes a little extra work and money to buy the book and the audio book, but from my experience I can say that the benefits far outweigh the costs.

Ironically enough, becoming better at listening also helps you to become a better reader. If I had to guess why, I would say it’s because the written word originates from the spoken word.

At any rate, you now have my tips and tricks for becoming a better reader in Japanese. If you have your own tips that you would like to share, or if you have a question about anything, then be sure to leave it down below in the comments section!

4 thoughts on “5 Tips For Reading Japanese”

  1. 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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  2. 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!

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply

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