Japanese Reading Material to Get Your Skills to the Next Level
All right fellow Japanophiles, you know when it’s time to take your Japanese skills to the next level.
Do you think you’re ready for some advanced reading practice?
If so, you’ve got a few places you can start…
- Advanced Japanese textbooks
- Japanese literature
- And those ads inside trains
But you probably don’t want to sit on the train for hours looking up kanji for train car ads on your smartphone…
So let’s look at the other options for advanced Japanese reading materials.
Japanese Reading Material to Get Your Skills to the Next Level
1. Advanced Japanese Textbooks
Ye olde Japanese textbooks are a staple of every Japanese student’s diet…
Well, they should be.
Some people I know–including me–ended up skipping some formal school time because we were so obsessed with learning on our own, speaking to Japanese people, watching Japanese soap op…er, “dramas.” And so on.
As plenty of students will tell you, immersion is one of the best ways to learn the language. But that’s not always enough to help you cross the Intermediate Plateau and ascend the Mountain of the Advanced Practioner.
And that’s where Japanese textbooks come in handy.
Here’s what you can get with textbooks:
Language structure that you won’t be able to learn otherwise
…unless you’re some kind of genius.
There’s a problem with passive immersion: it’s all too easy to coast through a conversation using your intuition alone.
Yes, you’ll be able to get the sense of what your friend, coworker, or favorite anime character is saying. Yes, you’ve seen that kanji a thousand times so you pretty much get it. Yes, there’s a picture above that item on the menu so you know you just have to point at it and grunt…
But that’s not good enough if you want to become a Truly Advanced Practioner.
Advanced Japanese textbooks will teach you need-to-know grammar, technical vocabulary, idioms, phrases, linguistic nuances, and so on. For example:
- The aptly named Dictionary of Advanced Japanese Grammar covers some high-level grammar structures that you just won’t find anywhere else. If you look around online, you’ll be able to find lots of info about grammar basics. But when you need to really dive deep, you’ll need to get a book like this.
- Idioms aren’t always covered in detail in textbooks…after all, you need to learn the language before you learn these types of sayings. Often the best way to do this is to purchase a dictionary of idioms. There are a couple good ones out there.
- Tobira is a textbook that introduces intermediate students to more advanced Japanese through articles that aren’t overly difficult. This way students get a bridge to real-world Japanese and can learn nuances and structures that won’t be found in lower level textbooks.
Yes, things get much slower and more difficult the higher you climb.
But that’s how you get that job in Japan or pass that Japanese test or get accepted to that exchange program…
Okay, what else can you learn from advanced Japanese textbooks?
The stuff you know you should learn but don’t want to learn
In my case, it’s kanji and formal speech…
Once I was able to stay afloat in the world that is daily Japanese conversation, dragging myself through textbooks was a tough slog.
And that’s exactly why you should study through textbooks…because you may never study the boring stuff on your own.
Everyone has an inner lazy person, and in order to become a Truly Advanced Practitioner, you must defeat that person at all costs. As mentioned above, there are a few things you can’t master without using advanced textbooks:
- Grammar: If you plan to work in Japan or use Japanese on the job, then you’ll need to be able to keep up. And some jobs may need you to handle some pretty long sentences. The better your grammar, the better you’ll be able to understand these long sentences.
- Vocabulary: Though immersing yourself in daily conversation will give you a repertoire of essential words, it’s just not enough to achieve advanced levels of proficiency.
- Other Nuances: As mentioned above, textbooks like Tobira can help you understand the nuances that you’ll inevitably come across in daily conversation, in newspapers, online, and so forth. Idioms, phrases, sayings, onomatopoeia, and other nuances can be really annoying at times…
Another benefit to studying with textbooks:
Topic-Specific or Technical Information
Upper-level textbooks are a good way to focus on topics that are useful in the real world, such as business. You can also find textbooks that walk you through Japanese literature. And there are even a couple older textbooks that teach you how to read the newspaper.
Bonus tip – Shop around. I found a basic business Japanese textbook that was cheap on Amazon.com but was selling for $1,999 and change on thejapanshop.com.
There are also advanced Japanese textbooks that cover subject-specific information in Japanese, such as science, medicine, engineering, business, economics, et cetera, et cetera.
We’ll assume that’s not what you’re after here…
So let’s see textbooks compare to my favorite source:
Let me take a moment to point out that there is some disagreement over where to draw the lines between beginner and intermediate, intermediate and advanced, advanced and fluent and fluent and native.
One person’s advanced textbook may be another’s bedtime story.
Here are three of my favorites:
- Haruki Murakami – Of course…who doesn’t like Murakami? IQ84 was the first one of his that I tackled in Japanese, and I also found some good discussions of the translation on How to Japonese.
- Uchida Hyakken – Hyakken’s work is good for the student because it’s easy to understand, well-written, and fun to read. I translated a couple of his ghost stories during my final year of college.
- Breaking into Japanese Literature – This is actually an anthology of short stories. If you’re uncertain of your abilities or where you should start, start here. This book is fantastic because it has the English and Japanese translations side-by-side. It includes vocabulary words and their definitions beneath the text.
When I graduated with a degree in Japanese literature, I was translating literature, so I consider literature to be advanced. But we’ll cover even more advanced books below.
So here’s what you learn from studying Japanese literature:
The Essence of a People and Their Language
If you want to connect with the culture, the hearts and the minds of the Japanese people, read some of their literature.
Not to get too philosophical here…
But being able to read poetry and literature can help you connect with a people and their culture on a deeper level than pop magazines, newspapers, TV shows, and so on.
The reason is that you’re reading stories. Stories that were written by, for, and about a people. In this case, the Japanese people.
Authors that write literature put a lot of emotion, thought, history, and culture into their stories.
Reading a history book can give you the facts that you need to know about what happened, while a literary or poetic take on a subject can help you feel the mythology, religion, history, culture, and so on–which can help you connect with the people on an intuitive, emotional level.
Post-war Okinawan literature, for example, helps you connect with the people in a way that a 5-day vacation to the islands never could.
And if you live in Okinawa, then these types of stories can give you a much greater insight into what has shaped the people you meet in your everyday life.
You might not be ready to take on a full book, though. If that’s the case, then by all means, start small. Start structured. You might want to use FluentU as a crutch to help you get into reading.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
You can start out by reading along as you’re watching a video, like a music video, a news report or even a silly commercial. Then, try reading the transcript. Do this until you can read the transcripts right off the bat and understand them well.
Then, move on to Japanese short stories and, eventually, full works. You’ll be glad you did.
Other Ways of Using the Language
When you read a newspaper, blog, magazine, or textbook, you’re going to mostly be reading pretty formal language.
And it won’t follow the exact same rules of, say, an informal conversation with friends.
But when you read literature you can gain access to a whole slew of linguistic voices, styles, and tones…
Not only will the authors of these narratives write in varying levels of formality, you’ll expose yourself to dialects–both past and present–as well as slang, informal speech patterns, unusual vocabulary, and “creative” or “artistic” uses of the language.
And who better to help you explore the boundaries of the language than native authors and poets?
At the end of the day, literature can help you learn to increase your intuitive grasp of the language (ever dream of dreaming in Japanese?), play with the language on your own, and thus increase your subconscious mastery.
To Learn Kanji
Oh yeah, let’s not forget about those kanji…
3. Newspapers, Blogs, and Magazines
For many a year, newspapers were my arch-enemy.
But with the advent of blogs and browser plugins like Rikaichan, looking up kanji and vocabulary has become a breeze.
And that’s one of the main reasons to study newspapers, blogs, and magazines:
Back in the day–when I was a student–teachers and 先輩 senpai would tell me that you needed to know around 1,500 kanji in order to read a newspaper. Some people offer slightly different estimates.
When I get asked the question, I just say, “A lot.”
Okay then…if you keep studying newspapers, making kanji lists, flashcards, and studying those lists, you’ll learn all your kanji.
But, as I advocate elsewhere, you need to take a disciplined approach when studying your kanji. It can definitely be a bit more challenging and scary than learning from a textbook, because you’re suddenly learning on your own, rather than through a textbook, from a teacher, or with classmates.
Stick it out, though, and in time you won’t have to study any more kanji…
As with kanji, there’s a core set (a big core set) of vocabulary that is used often and repeatedly in newspapers. You’ll learn lots of words related to business, politics, and current events.
This vocabulary will, in turn, expand your conversation skills.
So you can talk about more than the weather, what you ate for lunch, or what you want to do this weekend…
If you have a specific area of interest–say, you want to study a particular discipline or field of business–then you should be able to find blogs that cover that topic.
And you’ll be able to build vocabulary in that specific area.
And this is a great way to expand your vocabulary beyond what you’ll get from advanced Japanese textbooks.
Here are a few of the biggest news blogs to start you off:
- NHK News Web Easy: This is a great place to start. It’s news, but not super difficult. Try it first and see how you do. If you want more meat, head to one of the sources below.
- 朝日新聞: This is the go-to Japanese newspaper. As a student, you could probably focus only on this site and get all you need. But in case you want to explore some more, here are a couple more…
- 読売新聞: Yomiuri Online is this popular newspaper’s website. It’s yet another great place to find all the Japanese news you could ever want.
- CNN: Yes, CNN has a Japanese site.
Finally, Beyond the Advanced Textbooks…
When you reach the point where you can handle advanced Japanese textbooks, newspapers, and literature, then you are well on your way toward the summit of the Mountain of the Advanced Practitioner.
Now, don’t get scared, but lo and behold, there are other mountains and summits beyond the Mountain of the Advanced Practitioner (though I’m sure if you’re reading this you probably already know that). For some people, anyways.
So what’s comes after?
Well, that depends on your goals.
By this point, you’re already quite proficient and may only need to polish off your linguistic prowess and learn some specialized jargon. If you’re aiming to study or work in a specific industry in Japan, for instance, then you should grab books and textbooks in Japanese that cover that topic.
These books should be written for Japanese people.
They will give you the final touches you need to speak, read, and write about your subjects well enough to get that job or pass that test or talk about technical subjects in Japanese.
By the time you’re reading books at that level, you’ll have left the Intermediate Plateau in the dust…
Is such a thing possible? After all, the Intermediate Plateau is a long road.
Sure it’s possible.
Just do your due diligence, making sure you build a solid foundation during your beginning and intermediate studies.
And begin your ascent.