Struggling to begin reading in Japanese? So did I.
In fact, my first attempt at reading a real book was a complete failure.
I’d gone out to eat Ramen with a friend after class. We stopped at a bookstore on the way back, where I bought my first all-Japanese book. Upon arriving home, I promptly sat under our kotatsu (a small heated table used in winter that’s absolutely heavenly) and began reading.
I’d just spent about a year learning kanji and now it was time for the next level.
Half an hour or so later I had to admit: I knew every single kanji and vocabulary word in the book but I had no idea what any of it meant.
Despite the rough start, there’s good news: I can now read well enough that I genuinely enjoy reading in Japanese. This post is a step-by-step roadmap for how you can get there, too.
First, though, let’s discover how you can learn Japanese through reading.
The Spectrum: How to Learn Japanese by Reading
When someone asks “can you read?” it seems like a yes or no question. In truth, appearances can be deceiving.
Reading is a skill and all skills exist on a spectrum. You might enjoy reading a thriller in your spare time but struggle through a healthcare book full of medical terminology.
There’s literally a book aimed at university-educated native English speakers entitled “How to Read a Book.” A major part of the book discusses how different genres of writing tend to lay out their arguments or plots, and with this in mind, how you should go about reading them.
The core message of the book is that there are many ways to approach reading, and depending on what you need from a book, you should read it in different ways.
This brings me to two key points:
1. The first book you read will always be the hardest, no matter where or when you start. If you’ll humor me and call juggling an art—learning to read is, well, something of an art. Choosing what to read involves juggling length with difficulty. This is a core idea behind today’s list.
2. Reading in Japanese is different than reading in your native language. No matter what you read, your potential to consume content is much lower. This is balanced out by the fact that your ability to develop language skills from a given book is also much higher.
It’s really important to keep this in mind.
Consider reading with a notebook on hand so that you can write down unfamiliar grammar, useful phrases or idioms or even just sentences with words you’d like to remember. Make a point to use these phrases when you meet with your language exchange partner and add useful new things to a flashcard deck for further learning—a strategy called sentence mining.
Adding this sort of structure to your reading turns the world into your textbook and enables anything to be an opportunity to grow.
And if you want to learn Japanese through reading, specifically, there are two main ways to grow.
Intensive vs Extensive Reading
You’ve probably heard these words floating around but might not be sure exactly what they mean: Intensive reading involves putting a lot of effort into understanding a difficult text over a shorter period of time, while extensive reading involves spending a longer period of time reading something that doesn’t take as much effort.
If you follow my suggestions, you’ll be doing both types of reading—and each one involves a different approach.
Short stories should be read intensively. Untangle complicated sentences and look up any words you don’t know. After each story (unless it’s way below your level) you should have a concrete list of things you can express after reading but couldn’t before. This is where we expand the boundaries of what we can do.
Longer books should be read extensively. Try to relax! Don’t stress too much about knowing the book inside and out. It’s okay to only get “he was sitting under a tree” from a sentence that actually says “he was sitting all by his lonesome under the shade of a sagging willow tree.” The second sentence might be longer but its core idea hasn’t really changed.
Look up new information if your curiosity is piqued, but treat this reading as more recreational, rather than a chore. This is where the knowledge at the edges of our understanding gets reinforced and becomes more firmly rooted within our ability.
Start with a digital reading tool
Whether you use a Kindle, a smartphone reading app or even an online tool like LingQ or BliuBliu, starting digital can help with an issue you’re sure to encounter: looking up translations in Japanese can be complicated.
What happens when you come across a new word but don’t know the kanji? Or maybe you do know what it means but aren’t sure how to read it?
If you’re starting with a very simple book that doesn’t use kanji at all, you’ll encounter a completely different problem: homophones.
はなす can be either 話す (to speak), 離す (to separate) or 放す (to free). All three are pronounced hanasu, so having a built-in dictionary can help you select and consider the entire sentence for context.
A digital reading tool basically takes away the hurdle of checking vocabulary, which is an advantage that I can’t overstate. The ability to simply highlight a word and have a dictionary reference pop up saves an incredible amount of time compared to having to manually look up characters.
All the time saved means you move through the reading with less interruption, which means that it’s more enjoyable—and that you’ll be more likely to read more!
If you don’t feel quite ready to check out real Japanese reading resources, you can work your way up to it with FluentU’s videos. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
FluentU videos use interactive subtitles and you get access to a transcript as well as pre-watching vocabulary words, all of which you can use to scaffold your reading experience. Start small, then work your way up to the reading materials below!
Learn Japanese by Reading with 8 Steps and Over 20 Recommendations
1. Start with Graded Readers
Graded readers are books written with the needs and capabilities of a certain level of learner in mind. This eliminates two core problems of being a beginner of a given language:
1. Needing to consume media/resources to practice but most things being much too difficult
2. Not knowing where to go for practice that’s concentrated and relevant
A graded reader says “Oh, you’re at an N3 level? Cool, you should know this grammar and these words. Here’s a text that’s been professionally tailored to meet your needs.”
Check out some of the following graded reading options:
These readers are excellent but expensive; if you happen to be in Japan, try looking for them in a nearby university library. White Rabbit readers target specific JLPT levels and have content for N5, N4, N3 and N2.
This organization makes things really simple: Start at N5 and work your way up as you cover relevant grammar points through your main means of study.
１０分で読めるお話し（じゅっぷんで よめる おはなし）— “Readable in 10 Minutes”
This series is another excellent choice if you’d like a cheaper option and have access to Amazon.jp. The books are aimed at Japanese kids learning to read.
Start at year one and work your way up. Japanese kids don’t learn their language in JLPT order, of course, but the books do start simple and become progressively more difficult.
If Japan is out of your reach or you’d like something you can access online, check this one out.
The cool thing about Satori Reader is how personal it is: There are tons of articles written for different difficulty levels and the site will suggest things for you to read based on your interest and ability.
If you’d like to save money, NHK Easy News is a solid resource. Just as the title suggests, it’s real news written in simple Japanese.
Each article features a recording of a native speaker, keywords that can be moused over for a simple Japanese explanation and the ability to toggle furigana.
After reading a simplified article, you can follow a link to the original and try to understand it.
Wasabi and ChocoChoco
Although less expansive than the above options, these two resources also feature a number of simple stories aimed at beginners.
Wherever you start, the entire purpose of step one is getting to a point where you can move onto step two.
The format is straightforward: The right-hand pages of each book contain text that, aside from furigana the first time that a given kanji appears, is the same Japanese that someone with the original book would read.
The left-hand pages are an English gloss and grammar dictionary that provides hints and elucidates unclear parts, but doesn’t give too much away. Sentence by sentence, every bit of grammar that isn’t completely rudimentary gets explained.
These books are like training wheels for reading in Japanese. They expose you to all the most critical concepts you need to know to transition into reading real books and explains them in a straightforward way.
If you have difficulty moving on during a later stage or need a bit more practice, then come back to these for a boost! Really, these books are your best friends.
3. Read Short Stories
These are books that contain lots of plot-heavy short stories written in simple language.
The entire point of this step is simply to finish it, sit down and see that you know Japanese well enough to consume content written without learners in mind. And that’s an accomplishment!
キノの旅（きの の たび） — “Kino’s Journey” by Keiichi Shigusawa
These philosophical books follow the stories of Kino as she rides her motorcycle through foreign countries. Each story can give you insights about life and might change how you see the world.
The stories are good first reads because the plot of each tale is structurally similar: getting through one will help you know what to expect in the others. (And if you enjoy these, there’s also an anime!)
If horror is more your style then you might enjoy Zoo by Otsuichi. Actually, even if you’re not a horror fan, the genre is a great one for beginners: Scary stories can be appreciated as scary even if the language used isn’t very complex.
If you’re reading something for the purpose of a spook or twist, then Otsuichi is your man—and he just happens to be great for finding your feet in Japanese.
4. Read Longer Short Stories
The point of this step is to be a bridge between your first short story and your first normal-sized book. By building your way up from short stories to longer and more complex ones, you’re preparing yourself for reading full-length novels.
失はれる物語 （うしなわれる ものがたり）— “A Tale of Being Left Behind” by Otsuichi
This is also by Otsuichi, the horror author I just introduced. If you didn’t read him last time because you don’t like horror, the stories in this compilation should be more appetizing to you. They’re more bizarre than scary and many of them pull right on the heartstrings.
This is a solid second read, especially if you began with “Zoo.” The stories are written in a similar language but they’re notably longer.
暗黒童話（あんこくどうわ）— “Black Fairy Tale” by Otsuichi
Since I’ve already suggested two books by Otsuichi, sharing a full-length story of his seems like a logical thing to do. Reading a lot of one author means you get used to their style of writing; the words on the page might be different but they’re likely being used in similar ways to the author’s other works.
This is a two-part story. What sort of connection could there be between a talking crow who steals people’s eyes and the missing girl who’s sought by a boy elsewhere in Japan?
キッチン（きっちん）— “Kitchen” by Banana Yoshimoto
This operates at a completely different pace and deals with the lessons a girl named Mikage (who holds a striking affection for kitchens) learns about love and life. Full of quirky characters and lots of growth, this story deals with the concepts of identity, family and death.
キッチン is more difficult than 暗黒童話, so if you plan to read both books, read this one second.
5. Read an Entire Collection of Short Stories
I’d like to be the first to congratulate you: You’ve now read your first full-length story and that’s a huge achievement. Frankly, if you’ve read one book, you can read a second.
From here, just continue to work through books that interest you. This’ll get easier the more you read. You’re super close to freedom! Nevertheless, it probably still feels pretty far away, so I’ve got a few more suggestions for you.
Now that we’ve read an entire book (or maybe two) it’s time to read intensively again. The following are normal short-story compilations written in standard Japanese. Not only are they not aimed at learners of Japanese, but they’re also not aimed at a young adult audience. That means that the stories might be a little difficult—but don’t worry too much, they’re much shorter than the ones you’ve just read!
死神の精度（しにがみ の せいど）— “Accuracy of Death” by Isaka Koutaro
This is a quirky book. 死神 (しにがみ) — gods of death, are just not-quite-supernatural サラリーマン (さらりーまん) — salarymen who are out doing their jobs. Each 死神 is assigned to a particular person for a fixed period of time and is put in exactly the right situation and body necessary to connect with said person.
I know that we’re just here reading as an exercise to learn Japanese, but this is actually an overall fantastic book to read! Every story features a twist, and the twists are incredible—no matter how hard you try, you won’t see them coming!
女のいない男たち（おんなの いない おとこたち）— “Men without Women” by Haruki Murakami
You can’t discuss contemporary Japanese literature without bringing up Haruki Murakami. Whether you love Murakami or not, you can appreciate the way he writes. I read Murakami just to experience the way that he puts words together, something Japanese learners will find useful in their studies.
Each story here is very different but all are connected by a theme: They’re all stories of men who, for one reason or another, either lost or just don’t have a woman in their lives.
6. Increase the Complexity
The difficulty here goes way up. The length also goes down quite a ways: The first story I’ve shared is only a few pages long.
Don’t be frustrated if you don’t understand these at first. You might need to check out an English translation, and you’ll definitely be checking way more vocabulary and grammar than you have been.
But there’s a silver lining: Spend a few weeks struggling through stories like this and, whenever you decide to move on, the stories in step eight will seem like a piece of cake. These are out of copyright and available for free on Aozora Bunko.
待つ（まつ）— “Waiting” by Dazai Osamu
This is an author famous for writing a book you might have heard of: 人間失格 (にんげんしっかく) —“No Longer Human.” This short story is much lighter in tone. A person sits at a subways station and waits for someone, perhaps for you.
Dazai Osamu’s writing is also really special and after reading this story, you’ll find yourself looking at the random people waiting for their train to arrive with a new set of eyes.
羅生門（らしょうもん）— “Rashoumon” by Akutogawa Ryonosuke
This one tells a story that takes place near a special set of gates in old Kyoto. A man considering theft sees a woman robbing hair from corpses. What can possibly happen next?
This is the story of a boat guard rowing a supposed criminal to an island prison. The man, however, seems incredibly polite and unlike any of the other prisoners the sailor has rowed with, which unsettles the guard.
Read this one to find out what brings this soft-spoken man to the prison.
夢十夜（ゆめじゅうや）— “Ten Nights of Dreams” by Natsume Soseki
This story was described to me by one of my literature professors as being a “diamond of Japanese literature.” Written by Natsume Soseki, one of Japan’s most famous writers, this is a compilation of 10 surreal and fantastic dreams.
The book is a journey you just have to take.
7. Dive into Light Novels
Light novels provide the perfect bridge between shorter works and full novels. They often feature fun and sometimes funny topics and writing that’s simple but gripping.
アナザー（あなざー）— “Another” by Yukito Ayatsuji
Many longer Japanese light novels are broken up into sections, so although this series is nearly 1,000 pages, it won’t feel like it.
The story features a boy who’s just moved to a new town and school. But something doesn’t seem quite right: Nobody talks to a girl named Misaki Mei, treating her as though she doesn’t exist. Despite warnings, he approaches the girl, unknowingly cursing his fellow students, who begin dying gruesome deaths one by one. (There’s an anime for this one, too!)
8. Read Your First Novel
Here we are: from graded readers to our first real work of fiction.
I’ve selected stories by Isaka Kotaro and Haruki Murakami since we read their short stories and are now familiar with their style.
It’s going to be a challenge but at this point you’ve already overcome eight major hurdles, so I’m confident you can do one more!
重力ピエロ（じゅうりょく ぴえろ）— “A Pierrot” by Isaka Kotaro
Isaka Kotaro is known for his twists and this novel doesn’t disappoint. It follows a pair of brothers who become intrigued by a series of arson cases. As the two get closer to unraveling the mystery, they learn more about their family and each other.
ノルウェイの森（のるうぇい の もり）— “Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami
This is the work that brought Murakami to fame in Japan, a fact that I think makes it worthy of being one of our first full works of literature. It’s a story of loss, identity and sexuality, themes explored as the main character falls in love with another woman while already being in a relationship.
Norwegian Wood ends with the main character being asked “where are you now?” and I’d like to also direct this question to you as we conclude this article:
Where Are You Now?
At this point you’ve made an incredible journey, but where do you go from here? Will you begin exploring other works by these authors, return to the Meiji era or turn to more academic Japanese?
These eight steps were as much a journey of independence as they were of literacy, and by now you’ve got everything it takes to choose a direction and begin exploring your own world—in Japanese, of course.
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