Japanese beginners—don’t stick to the shallow waters of reading.
You can read absolutely anything you want.
The first step: 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.
What’s 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. FluentU lets you watch authentic Japanese videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—with interactive subtitles and personalized learning tools to help you follow along, no matter what your level!
How to Learn Japanese with Readers
- Go a bit above your current level for a challenge, using aids.
- Take notes along the way with paper and pen or digital devices.
- With the help of those DIY readers mentioned above, turn ANY Japanese material into a reader. Use the following tools to make it happen and get reading already!
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.
Here are the features that you’ll want to add to texts for your Japanese reading enjoyment:
- 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 (available in print and in digital formats), and it will guide you towards the most popular definitions and usages of words.
- 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.
- 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 are mostly for digital texts, you might say—and you’d be right. All you need to do with printed Japanese texts is pop on your Japan Goggles (if you have an iPhone). This is 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.
Recommended Readers in Print
Now, 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. Here are a few to check out.
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.
“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.
This reader is another solution to the same problem facing new Japanese learners: reading Japanese literature can be freaking hard! And they tackle this dilemma in a similar fashion. 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.
“Japanese Reader Collection”
Despite the colorful illustrations gracing the covers, the readers in this collection aren’t made for children (though, of course, they 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.
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!) 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.
To find more by this awesome Japanese teaching duo, search for the authors Clay and Yumi Boutwell. They’ve got 17 titles to offer learners in paperback and e-book format.
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.
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!
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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