10 of the Best Japanese Readers, Graded for All Levels and Learning Styles
If you’re looking for an entry-point into real Japanese literature, Japanese readers can help.
Graded Japanese readers make exciting texts like stories, fables and news accessible—even for Japanese beginners!
We’ve created a list of amazing Japanese readers available online and in print, for Japanese learners of all ability levels and learning styles.
All you have to do is pluck up your courage, pick one of these great options and dive into the amazing world of Japanese reading.
- What Is a Japanese Reader?
- How to Learn Japanese with Readers
- 10 Japanese Graded Readers for All Levels
- “A Japanese Reader: Graded Lessons for Mastering the Written Language”
- “First Japanese Reader”
- “Japanese Stories for Language Learners”
- “Learn Japanese with Stories Volume 1: Hikoichi”
- “Japanese Reader” Collection
- “Short Stories in Japanese: New Penguin Parallel Texts”
- “Read Real Japanese” Series
- “Breaking into Japanese Literature”
- “Classical Japanese Reader and Essential Dictionary”
- “Reading Japanese with a Smile”
- And One More Thing...
What Is a Japanese Reader?
Japanese readers are books where Japanese text is presented alongside its English translations.
Some readers come in the form of a guided reading text, where English boosts you along as you get familiar with Japanese kana and kanji. There may be full-on whole text translations set side-by-side with the Japanese text. The first half of the book may be in Japanese and the second half in English.
Another reader option is a book that guides you through key grammar and vocabulary concepts along the way.
Still another is a digital reader that guides you to skillful Japanese reading comprehension by providing on-screen definitions, translations and furigana over kanji.
Readers aren’t just for beginners, either. Intermediate and advanced learners will also benefit from Japanese readers since they’ll enable them to dive into native-level materials like newspapers, academic texts and other more complex material.
How to Learn Japanese with Readers
Here are our four most important tips for incorporating a reader into your Japanese learning program:
- For a review or reinforcing learned materials, find a reader that suits your level.
- For a challenge, go a bit above your current level.
- Take notes.
- Don’t feel limited to published Japanese graded readers. With some help from dictionaries and translators, you can turn any Japanese material into a reader.
Whether you’re learning with a reader, or you want to turn your favorite Japanese light novel into a reader for your own enjoyment, here are some additional helpful tools and tips:
- Japanese-English dictionary. This is a must-have for all Japanese learners. To convert any digital text into a reader, integrate your digital dictionary with your Kindle or other tablet reader, like the Jade Reader.
- Japanese-Japanese dictionary. It might take you longer to decipher the real meanings of the Japanese words you look up—and don’t be surprised if you end up using a Japanese-English dictionary to help translate the dictionary definitions themselves. But using a Japanese to Japanese dictionary will encourage you to think in the language, and help you discover even more new words.
- Whole text translators. Many print readers simply display English and Japanese texts side-by-side. You can recreate the experience by plugging Japanese text into a reliable whole text translator and keeping the translation on hand while you read. These translators are rarely perfect but they should give you enough of an idea of what the text is about to help you push on.
- A program to add furigana to any and all kanji. To learn kanji, you’ll need to see them in their natural habitat, within the context of authentic texts. Make this process smoother by using a program like NihongoDera, which adds furigana to any text you input in the textbox.
- Use FluentU to see new vocabulary and grammar concepts in natural speech. FluentU is a language learning program that uses short videos to teach the language. The program’s dual-language subtitles turn it into a video reader.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
- A Japanese text-to-voice program. Hearing your text aloud can do wonders for easing you into more fluent reading. A text-to-speech program like Offline Translator S&T can let you hear the Japanese, hear a translation or even try reading in Japanese to see if the app understands you.
- Download a picture-based translation app for your smartphone. These are designed to help you scan printed Japanese texts with a whole new pair of eyes that capture and comprehend every last character laid out before you.
Another option is to use a children’s dictionary, it basically serves to convert advanced Japanese into more simplified Japanese.
10 Japanese Graded Readers for All Levels
“A Japanese Reader: Graded Lessons for Mastering the Written Language”
In a nutshell: A wide variety of topics and formats keep you engaged at every step in your Japanese learning journey.
This Japanese reader has an impressive range of formats, styles and reading levels. Within its pages, you’ll find newspaper clippings, essays on Japanese customs and history and even sample texts from famous 20th-century (the not-so-distant past) Japanese literature. But it’s far more expansive than that—there are 75 lessons in total, and each one corresponds to a unique text.
The lessons appear in order of difficulty, and work up from beginner skills (such as mastering kana) to advanced knowledge of Japanese language and culture.
“First Japanese Reader”
In a nutshell: Best for beginners who want to see the vocabulary and grammar concepts they’re learning through Japanese folk tales.
This book is ideal for beginner and pre-intermediate learners of Japanese. In fact, this reader’s aim is to help Japanese learners see N4 Japanese grammar in context, and to “bridge the gap” between spoken Japanese and the register of Japanese used in literature.
The reader is dual-language so that stories are presented in Japanese first and then translated into English.
Each story is based on Japanese folklore such as “The Child-rearing Ghost” and “The Carpenter and the Calico Cat,” so you’re also getting to know some culture as you read. In addition to English translations, stories include a breakdown of vocabulary and grammatical information. They also progress in difficulty as you advance through the book, so learners are encouraged to read the stories in order.
“Japanese Stories for Language Learners”
In a nutshell: A mix of Japanese folktales as well as more modern options for beginner to intermediate learners.
“Japanese Stories for Language Learners” is a fantastic graded reader for intermediate learners. In addition to its stories, this book contains some beautiful illustrations done in traditional Japanese artistic styles.
This book includes five stories. The first two are traditional Japanese folk tales, while the three stories that follow are from modern authors. Learners can also access audio recordings of the stories in Japanese with their purchase.
Each story includes a side-by-side English translation as well as vocabulary lists, grammar explanations and comprehension questions for enhanced practice. Best of all, while the stories are written in the full Japanese writing system including kanji, there is hiragana in smaller text above the kanji to assist with reading and comprehension.
“Learn Japanese with Stories Volume 1: Hikoichi”
In a nutshell: Stories that follow a fun character through mischievous happenings with in-depth grammar and vocab explanations.
This is a perfect choice for Japanese beginners who are looking to dip their toes into Japanese reading for the first time. All of the stories in this volume follow a character named Hikoichi, a mischievous character who meets Japanese fantastical creatures and other figures from Japanese lore.
Despite the colorful illustrations gracing the covers, this reader isn’t made for children (though, of course, it could be used to introduce English-speaking children to Japanese as well). The kanji are all accompanied by furigana, and you’ll find lots of mini-notes on the sides with grammar explanations sentence-by-sentence as you read. This helps walk you through the grammar. With each story, the grammar becomes more challenging.
This reader is perfect for beginner and intermediate Japanese learners because it uses romanji and English translations in the glossaries. Furthermore, each story is told with an English summary so as to not do all the work for the reader. Learners also have access to grammatical explanations and free downloads of corresponding audio for each story.
“Japanese Reader” Collection
In a nutshell: A series focusing on folk tales that grow with you as you level up your Japanese.
Fans of the above-mentioned Hikoichi (or those who are already beyond a beginner reading level) will be thrilled to know that Hikoichi’s story is actually the first in a 10-volume series. Each volume in this series is a graded Japanese reader featuring four short stories. The level of difficulty increases with each volume, so this series can be followed chronologically.
Like Hikoichi in the first volume, each of these readers is devoted to recounting a historical tale near and dear to Japan’s heart. Recognizing these major cultural icons and knowing their backstories will serve you well in the long run. Many Japanese towns and cities have mascots, delicacies and regional legends based on these guys.
For example, I quickly discovered that Momotaro (Peach Boy), the central figure of the second volume, was a ubiquitous presence in Okayama while living there for a summer. Any omiyage you buy in town is likely to be decked out in Momotaro-related decorations.
Search for the authors Clay and Yumi Boutwell to find more by this awesome Japanese teaching duo.
“Short Stories in Japanese: New Penguin Parallel Texts”
In a nutshell: Intermediate-level classic short stories from classic and well-known authors from Japanese history.
“Short Stories in Japanese: New Penguin Parallel Texts” is an e-book collection of eight dual-language short stories. They’re first presented in original Japanese followed by an English translation. The stories featured in this collection are from well-known Japanese authors such as Kazushige Abe and Hiromi Kawakami. In fact, this is the first time these stories are being offered in this format and often the first time translated into English.
Because of the level of literature offered in the parallel texts, this collection is ideal for N3 learners. That means that learners should be at the intermediate level of their Japanese learning journey.
After each story, readers can also find additional notes on the plot and Japanese culture as well as grammar and vocabulary notes.
“Read Real Japanese” Series
In a nutshell: Bite-sized entries into real Japanese writings featuring essays and short stories.
Are you a lover of fiction? Enjoy a good, compelling story? Even if not, you’ve got to do some Japanese reading practice to become fluent—so you may as well have fun with it! The purpose of this reader series is to make Japanese writing approachable to learners.
There’s a reason why they decided not to tackle full-on novels here—this series pulls its readings from short-form writings, like essays and short stories. These have strong narration that guides you along and keeps your brain engaged, but they’re also short enough to hold even hamster-sized attention spans. The manageable size of each lesson will encourage you to always get your daily reading practice in.
“Breaking into Japanese Literature”
In a nutshell: A resource that starts with short, easy stories and gradually builds up to longer, more difficult ones.
This reader provides a solution to a common problem facing new Japanese learners: reading Japanese literature can be hard! “Breaking into Japanese Literature” tackles this dilemma with a few different strategies.
First, this series of literary snippets starts you off with simpler short stories. You’ll gradually and naturally progress through the difficulty levels, with language becoming more complex with each new graded lesson.
By the end, you’ll be reading far lengthier stories than you ever thought possible—and you’ll actually be following everything that’s happening remarkably well! If one of your goals is to read Japanese literature, this is a great way to get your feet wet and then slowly ease yourself into the deep end.
“Classical Japanese Reader and Essential Dictionary”
In a nutshell: A sampling of texts from various points in Japanese history, including poetry and snippets from longer literature.
This book is all business. This is where you go when you’re invested in deciphering Japanese literature and poetry and you’re ready to kick things up a notch.
You’ll get to work closely with and study language from classical and contemporary Japanese literary works, allowing you to sample all the diverse flavors of the Japanese language. The texts provide you with a rich sampling of literature from different periods in history and influenced by different cultural ideas.
“Reading Japanese with a Smile”
In a nutshell: A collection of modern magazine stories that offer entertainment and insight into Japanese culture.
In what may well be the most outright entertaining reader on this list, you’ll find a collection of nine magazine stories.
You’ll be exposed to tons of useful, colorful modern language. The author also goes to great lengths to painstakingly break down the sentences and explain all the key grammar and vocabulary points for you.
Just imagine someone came across some great, vocabulary-rich and humorous stories, ripped the pages right out of the respective magazines and made this little bilingual scrapbook for your learning enjoyment.
As soon as you start reading native Japanese texts, you’ll discover a whole new ability you never knew you had.
You probably thought you’d be in the Japanese reading little league for years yet.
Now, thanks to your awesome tools and readers, you’ll be swinging at curveballs with the best of ’em!
And One More Thing...
If you love learning Japanese with authentic materials, then I should also tell you more about FluentU.
FluentU naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You'll learn real Japanese as it's spoken in real life.
FluentU has a broad range of contemporary videos as you'll see below:
FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts. Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
All definitions have multiple examples, and they're written for Japanese learners like you. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples.
The best part? FluentU keeps track of your vocabulary, and gives you extra practice with difficult words. It'll even remind you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You'll have a 100% personalized experience.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)