Reading Japanese can be a unique challenge, but I am here to help you get started.
Don’t let native Japanese-level texts intimidate you, with the aid of helpful tools like readers, dictionaries and furigana, Japanese reading can be both enjoyable and easy.
Once you have the basics of hiragana and katakana characters, and a bit of kanji mixed in, that’s all you’ll need is some practice to start reading Japanese.
- Transition from Studying to Reading: Why, When and How
- 5 Tools for Facilitating Easy Japanese Reading
- 9 Great Resources for Easy Japanese Reading
Transition from Studying to Reading: Why, When and How
The why is super simple: when you make the jump from vocab lists and flashcards to actually reading real-world texts, you’ll get to start reading authentic Japanese. The sooner you start this, the sooner your brain will become totally familiar with the sounds, structures and rhythms of the language. Plus, you’ll get the satisfaction of engaging with Japanese content—wasn’t that your big goal all along?
Now for the when and how. There’s definitely a process to follow to learn this language skill.
1. Practice reading and writing. Make flashcards with all of the characters on them, carry these with you. Use a kana practice app so you can master stroke order on the bus, or any other moment of spare time you find. These same flashcards and apps can come with you to the next step.
2. Learn basic vocabulary. Practice these words with kana alone if the kanji is tripping you up. Many textbooks will introduce beginner level Japanese vocabulary with kana only, and then phase you into learning the associated kanji. Forcing yourself into kanji too early can detract from your kana mastery and vocabulary retention (which are both incredibly important). But, hey, if kanji doesn’t seem all that bad, go for it!
3. Start learning the most common kanji. You’ll want to start studying the common kanji that fit into your basic vocabulary. Some replacements will make reading and writing easier than ever, like the changing わたし for 私 and ひと for 人(way simpler, right?). Then you’ll have some common kanji that aren’t necessarily easier, but they’re sure as heck common: trade みます for 見ますand はなしますfor 話します. Finally, you’ll arrive at the “hard but common” category, like 図書館 for としょかん。
4. Start reading practice. This can overlap with the last two steps, and be used as a tool for vocabulary and kanji learning. Depending on the extent of your vocabulary at this point, you’ll choose different Japanese reading resources. The easy reading options provided here will allow you to get a jumpstart on Japanese reading practice without knowing any kanji—that means you can jump in as soon as kana starts making sense.
Quick Tips for Easy Reading
- Don’t rely on hiragana-only stories for practice after you’ve mastered hiragana
- Never stop studying vocabulary and grammar
- Keep tools on hand
- Practice with the training wheels on (using audio, dictionaries, etc.) and then take them off little-by-little
Oh, and there are two things that you absolutely must do while reading these texts:
- Sound out every character as you go.
- Be a diligent note-taker.
5 Tools for Facilitating Easy Japanese Reading
This is your all-around tool for translation of real-world materials, online and offline. This will save your butt while reading menus, maps and more while traveling in Japan. It’s also a fun and convenient tool to have on hand for any printed Japanese materials, like books and newspapers, that you’re currently reading.
This sleek tool will allow you to save your favorite Japanese content directly to your iPhone, Android, Windows Phone, tablet or computer browser. Use this to compile all your favorite Japanese articles, blogs, cartoons and more, organize them, tag them and return to them for practice.
3. Pop-up Readers
Wakaru is the loveliest pop-up reader for iPhone and iPad, and is especially nice to pair with your Pocket app. This will give you on-screen definitions as desired while reading your Japanese e-books and articles, and also allows you to make personalized flashcards with the words you find while reading. Jade Reader is a good option for Android users.
4. Tools to Add Furigana
Furigana are kana which are noted above kanji. If your easy Japanese reading material doesn’t have furigana, or if you venture outside your level, install an app that’ll add ’em in for you! There are quite a few options out there for your smartphones and internet browsers, but the best apps and plugins are the simplest ones: Furigana Reader for Android, Furigana Reader Pro for iPhone and rikaikun for Chrome are outstanding examples.
FluentU is a surprisingly great program for learning to read Japanese. I say “surprisingly” because, at a first glance, FluentU is all about Japanese video content.
FluentU has a curated library with authentic videos equipped with interactive subtitles and translations, making the content accessible for learners of any level.
After choosing your favorite Japanese videos, watch them with all-Japanese subtitles. Switch on the English subtitles when you need a hand with comprehension. All in all, this study tool will help you absorb vocabulary, grammar and natural Japanese syntax.
You’ll be on the road to learning the authentic Japanese that natives actually speak.
9 Great Resources for Easy Japanese Reading
Sometimes, having a printed book is the way to go. Amazon is positively overflowing with great Japanese children’s books and easier level readings. You can even try some bilingual English-Japanese books like “Am I Small? 私, 小さい？” You can see what you’re getting into from the title alone: two simple kanji are apparent. Books with English translations are great for tackling slightly more advanced vocabulary and themes, as found in “A Treasury of Japanese Folktales”—just keep Waygo or a Japanese dictionary on hand!
And, believe it or not, no matter how little Japanese you know, you’re not restricted to just children’s books. The Read Real Japanese series is great for strengthening comprehension while engaging with authentic texts that natives actually read, like short stories and essays.
Check out more great easy Japanese books here!
This website admittedly looks intimidating when you first land on the homepage. Activate that furigana app or pop-up reader to navigate with the kanji—or you can click aimlessly until you stumble across a story. The story categories include 日本の有名な話 (Japan’s Famous Stories) and, my personal favorite, 日本のこわい話 (Japan’s Ghost Stories).
The hundreds of stories featured here have minimal kanji and lots of helpful audio accompaniments. Read the story first, then listen and read along!
3. World of チョコチョコ (Chokochoko)
Above, I’ve linked you directly to a small but excellent collection of Japanese beginner’s stories. They come in neatly-written PDFs you can download for free and take along with you for on-the-go reading practice. These are also great for printing, reading and marking up on paper. When you’re ready to level up, Chokochoko has you covered for all other reading levels as well.
4. Hiragana Times
The title alone sounds nice, right? Hiragana is our friend.
Well, the Hiragana Times is an innovative bilingual magazine devoted to friendly, approachable Japanese reading for all learners. They boast an impressive digital book series and a collection of brilliant magazines. You can either buy the digital books or subscribe to the magazines—but before doing so, try out their sample magazine here.
The sample alone is worth grabbing for some easy Japanese reading practice! The first article title you’ll see is eye-catching, intriguing and relatable, plus it’ll show you just how perfect their Japanese text is for easy reading: it’s「レット・イット・ゴー」は現代版の禅？！」with the furigana and the English translation (Is “Let it Go” a Modern Version of Zen?”) written above.
5. Adorable Animals @ Maggie Sensei’s Place
No furigana to help you with the kanji on this site, but there are romaji, English translations, thorough explanations of Japanese grammar topics and word usage—plus loads of morale-boosting animal friends. Great for quick lessons and quick, easy reading materials when you only have a minute to spare and need a reason to smile.
6. Yahoo!きっず (Yahoo! Kids)
You probably explored Yahoo Kids when first learning about the internet (unless you were born after 2000). It’s fun, colorful and appeals to your inner child with nostalgic topics like ポケモン (pokémon) and ディズニー(Disney).
7. NHK News Easy
No easy Japanese reading resource guide would be complete without NHK Easy News. You know how looking at a Japanese news website makes you want to cry sometimes? That won’t happen here. This cleanly laid-out web page is perfect for your delicate beginner Japanese eyes. Not only do you have furigana everywhere, but you also have great images for context and a built-in Japanese-Japanese dictionary. Finally, get your news fix in Japanese like you always dreamed!
8. Nippon Talk
Love blogs? This blogger helps you read casual, blog-style narratives by providing all the easy Japanese reading fixin’s you’ve already come to rely on: English translations, furigana and relevant images for context. She meanders through the ups and downs of daily life, marriage, travelling, overcoming language barriers, fun outings and more. There are years worth of entries categorized for your convenience. Definitely bookmark this one!
9. Modern Fairy Tales
Alright, I’m going to send you off with a bit of wry humor. The website has compiled a collection of the newest Japanese Twitter sensation: Japanese professionals retelling classic fairy tales from a modern businessperson’s perspective.
These tongue-in-cheek tales bemoan the trials of modern work life, mock absurd workplace behavior and demonstrate just how unromantic we all become when working the ol’ 9-5. Mimicking classic fairy tale format and style, the tweets themselves are easy to read and use relatively simple language. English translations are provided.
And, hey, if you really like someone’s style then you’ve just found a new Japanese account to follow on Twitter for more regular Japanese reading!