Japanese beginners—don’t stick to the shallow waters of reading.
You don’t have to be confined to boring textbook reading exercises! You can read absolutely anything you want.
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.
And while you’re at it: Don’t take your smartphone, your tablet or any other device for granted.
Learn how to navigate your gadgets properly, and you’ve got an honest-to-God magic wand in your hands.
Poof! With just a few screen taps, you can transform your technology into a Japanese reader that will dramatically enhance your ability to access and understand any Japanese text, regardless of level. Read on to learn how, and to find the perfect Japanese reader for your learning style!
What Is a Japanese Reader?
You can think of reading a Japanese reader like playing T-ball before ever swinging at your first real baseball. You can never really fail because there’s a huge safety net there to scoop you up when you miss a word, phrase or even an entire paragraph.
Readers aren’t just for beginners, either. For you advanced learners out there, getting your hands on the right reader means that you’ll be able to make a foray into native-level materials like newspapers, academic texts and other more complex material.
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.
Digital readers can be totally DIY. But a Google search reveals all kinds of experimental apps, plugins and extensions out there for this purpose. Which ones are the best? Which ones are the easiest to navigate? Which ones are worth the money? And which ones give you the full experience without spending a dime? These are some questions that I’ll be answering for you here, since I’ve already spent a good chunk of time downloading and tinkering with various add-ons to DIY my own Japanese readers.
You can even take a reader-like approach to spoken Japanese with FluentU.
Use FluentU’s interactive subtitles and personalized learning tools to help you follow along, no matter what your level! It’s a great way to watch and learn from exciting, real-world Japanese content, even if you’re a beginner.
How to Learn Japanese with Readers
The process doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are our four most important tips for incorporating a reader into your Japanese learning program:
- Go a bit above your current level for a challenge, using aids.
- Take notes along the way with paper and pen or digital devices.
- Don’t feel limited to published Japanese graded readers. With a little creativity, you can turn any Japanese material into a reader. Use the following tools to make it happen and get reading already!
Supplemental Tools for Turning Any Japanese Text into a Reader
Why do you need to know how to turn texts into readers? Well, despite being a driving force behind much of the world’s technological innovation, Japan is notoriously stubborn about adopting digital readers. Resources can seem scarce at a first glance, although we do have a few on our list below.
Here are the features that you’ll want to add to texts for your Japanese reading enjoyment:
- Japanese-English dictionary. This is a must-have for all Japanese learners. Hopefully you’ve already found a digital or print dictionary (whichever best suits your needs) that you can keep on hand in case of reading emergencies. To convert any digital text into a reader, integrate your digital dictionary with your Kindle or other tablet reader. This will allow you to view definitions of the words you’re seeing on-screen.
- Japanese-Japanese dictionary. This is for readers who are already a bit more advanced or a bit more intense about their learning. 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 if you slog through, you’ll end up picking up significantly more Japanese vocabulary in the process.
Sanseido.net is a good online option. The “Daijisen” is a Japanese-language dictionary commonly used by native speakers in Japan (sold in print and in digital formats), and it’ll guide you towards the most popular definitions and usages of words.
- Whole text translators. Many print readers simply display English and Japanese texts side-by-side. They’ll either go sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, page-by-page or chapter-by-chapter. You can recreate the experience by plugging Japanese text into a reliable whole text translator and keeping the translation on hand while you read.
Google Translate gets the job done roughly, and you can install an add-on to your browser that will help you easily translate any web page. Microsoft Office and other word processors have a built-in translate function. Simply enable the Japanese language features on your processor to get started. If you have a Kindle, the Instant Translate function uses Bing to translate text as you go.
- A program to add furigana to any and all kanji. Kanji is often the cause of our downfall while reading authentic Japanese texts. I mean, there are just so many characters to learn! You can’t wait until you’ve mastered every last kanji to start reading—and many newcomers to the language get hung up on this. You need to observe kanji in their natural habitat, within the context of authentic texts.
To make this process smoother, download a program that’ll pop in furigana above all the kanji in the text you’re reading. This will help you sound things out and, depending on your existing Japanese knowledge, can help you know the meanings of many more kanji right off the bat.
- A Japanese text-to-voice program. Hearing your text aloud can do wonders for easing you into more fluent reading. Here’s a great example of a text-to-voice app on Google Play.
These tips are mostly for digital texts, you might say—and you’d be right. All you need to do with printed Japanese texts is 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 keep this cool children’s dictionary handy, as it basically serves to convert advanced Japanese into more simplified Japanese.
Best Japanese Graded Readers: Our Top 12 Picks for All Language Levels and Learning Styles
DIY readers are great, but let’s say you’re looking for a good old-fashioned print Japanese reader. They’re definitely valuable to have sitting on your desk or nightstand.
Or maybe you want all the benefits of a parallel-text reader, but the on-the-go convenience of a mobile app. In that case, you could absolutely benefit from downloading a graded reader in e-book form.
Either way, here are our top 12 picks for Japanese graded reading practice.
“A Japanese Reader: Graded Lessons for Mastering the Written Language”
This one might look a little old-school at first, but don’t dismiss it just yet. The impressive range of formats, styles and reading levels here could be just what you needed to diversify your Japanese knowledge. You’ll get to read 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 will work you up from beginner skills (such as mastering kana) to advanced knowledge of Japanese language and culture.
“First Japanese Reader”
The “First Japanese Reader” is a graded reader that can be bought in print version or as an e-book from Kindle.
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.
This graded 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.”
Being for learners at the N4 (pre-intermediate) level, the “First Japanese Reader” aims to be a first look at Japanese stories for learners starting out. In fact, its writer claims that the book can “bridge the gap” between real spoken Japanese and the register of Japanese used in literature.
In addition to English translations, each story also includes a breakdown of vocabulary and grammatical information. The stories also progress in difficulty as learners advance through the book, so learners are encouraged to read the stories in order.
Best of all, audio for each story can be accessed on the Learn Japanese YouTube channel.
“Japanese Stories for Language Learners”
“Japanese Stories for Language Learners” is a fantastic print 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. “Urashimo Taro” is a story about a fisherman rescuing a turtle, and “Snow Woman” is a story about a ghost woman who is often featured in Japanese literature. The three stories that follow are short stories from modern authors.
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.
Learners can also access audio recordings of the stories in Japanese with their purchase.
“Learn Japanese with Stories Volume 1: Hikoichi”
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. He’s a mischievous character who meets Japanese fantastical creatures and other figures from Japanese lore such as Tengu, a winged Japanese god.
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 to 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
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. They’ve got 17 titles to offer learners in paperback and e-book format. They even offer beginner and pre-intermediate level Japanese History Readers for history buffs learning Japanese.
“Short Stories in Japanese: New Penguin Parallel Texts”
Penguin has long been a publishing company with a great repertoire of language learning textbooks and short story collections, and this one definitely does the company justice.
“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
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, too—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”
This reader provides a solution to a common problem facing new Japanese learners: reading Japanese literature can be freaking 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”
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.
All in all, you’ll definitely feel significantly closer to achieving your goal of reading Japanese literature all on your own after letting this reader into your life.
“Reading Japanese with a Smile”
In what may well be the most outright entertaining reader on this list, you’ll find a collection of 9 magazine stories. It may not sound like a lot of content, but it really is.
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.
But, hey, all of the above material is fun.
For even more print readers, visit White Rabbit Japan, an online store that carries a ton of reading material intended for Japanese learners. Go to the “Japanese Language” menu, select “Reading Material,” choose the “graded reader” tag and browse away!
Mondo (Japanese Reading App)
Mondo isn’t your typical Japanese reader, but it’s still a great option worth checking out if you’re interested in Japanese reading practice.
Mondo is an app available on Apple and Android that features a stream of Japanese reading content aimed at helping people learn the language. It was created by Polyglots, an app that helps Japanese speakers learn English.
At its core, the Mondo app uses real-world Japanese articles to teach vocabulary and see grammar in context. Users simply pick an article that interests them and begin reading. Just like a print reader, the articles can be sorted by difficulty level to help users choose the best articles for them.
Once reading, learners can click on any word for hiragana, in the case of kanji, and English translations. These words can then be turned into flashcards for later review. In other words, it’s like a supercharged graded reader that’s constantly being updated with new content.
In addition to Mondo’s bountiful free features, users can pay a monthly fee for two tiers of premium features (“Basic” and “Gold”). These premium features include audio recordings of each article with native Japanese speakers as well as a chat feature where learners can practice with Japanese speakers. This chat feature allows learners to communicate using written messages and voice conversations.
Manabi Reader (Japanese Reading App)
Manabi Reader is another app that’s available for Apple users. The app offers bite-sized written content such as short stories, news, fairy tales and Reddit content to help learners read Japanese.
Like Mondo, Manabi Reader isn’t a traditional Japanese graded print reader, but it offers many comparable features. Notably, the stories can be sorted by their source (such as the news agency) and the level of difficulty.
An in-app dictionary allows you to click on any word in the reading and get English translations of words. There is also furigana available for each kanji when you click on the words.
As you read, unknown words can be saved to flashcard decks and vocabulary lists for later review. When these words reappear in subsequent readings, they become highlighted green (when they’re completely learned in flashcard decks) or red (when they need further review and practice).
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!
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