learn japanese with books

Learn Japanese with Books: 6 Fail-proof Steps to Reading in Japanese

You just walked into Kyoto International Manga Museum.

There are rows upon rows of shelves decorated in colorful collections of just about every manga series imaginable.

In a second that’ll all be yours.

…just as soon as you can read Japanese!

We’re in the same boat: We want to get better at reading Japanese, but we’ve hit a wall. Maybe some of us don’t know where to start while others just can’t find new material that’s challenging enough to ramp up your language skills.

Whatever your reading goals are, we’re going to find the perfect Japanese books for you to read and how to make the most of them.

There will be no more waiting to see when or if that new best-seller is going to be translated!

Learn a foreign language with videos

Taking the First Steps to Reading Japanese

First things first: Let’s start with the Kyoto International Manga Museum website I linked to in the opening line.

Although the contents are in English, if you’re interested in some great spots to hit up in Japan, then click on the upper-right corner, select “language” and change it to 日本語 (にほんご) — Japanese, or やさしい日本語 (やさしいにほんご) — easy Japanese.

You’ve just taken the next step to reading in Japanese.

The next step is to visit FluentU and get acquainted with some real-life Japanese. When you start reading books in Japanese, you’ll notice that the language used, especially in dialogues, isn’t quite as formal or rigid as the textbooks you might be learning from.

The best way to get used to authentic Japanese is to listen to it being used. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. Every video also comes with kanji and the hiragana to help you read the characters, as well as an English translation.

Don’t recognize a word? Just hover over it to see its translation in real time. Or click on it to see more information, examples of usage and even other videos where it’s used for more context.

Check out FluentU with a free trial and open your mind to learning Japanese reading!

Now you’re ready to learn how to prepare yourself for difficult words and characters, where to go to when you don’t understand slang or are struggling with grammar and what to look for when you think you’ve run out of resources.

So let’s get started!

Prepare Yourself to Read in Japanese: Dictionaries and Log Journals

Online Dictionaries

Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC

WWWJDIC has been a long-time favorite for Japanese learners and speakers. It has different dictionaries that cater to all sorts of studies and professions, from legal terms to Buddhist words.

Its “Translate Words” option is perfect for those learning to read. Users can copy and paste text into the input field. The dictionary will then translate each word and phrase in the order in which it was written.

Tangorin

If the online dictionary Tangorin were a person, I’d marry it. Search words, expressions, names and more, and receive detailed definitions, example sentences and kanji usage and stroke order. The dictionary will even tell you if the word you’ve searched for is archaic.

Tangorin will also show you how to conjugate adjectives and verbs. Perfect!

Weblio

Beginner and advanced learners, rejoice! Weblio’s Japanese to English dictionary is an online dictionary designed for Japanese speakers.

Fear not, because it’s great for Japanese learners as well. Since the dictionary is designed for Japanese speakers, you can experience “real Japanese” and how it’s used. Explore in-depth definitions in Japanese or English, example sentences and more.

Print Dictionaries

You have nearly as many options, if not more, with printed versions of dictionaries. Maybe it’s the inner geek in me saying this, but there’s nothing quite as fulfilling as holding a hard copy of a book in your hands. Ahh, nothing like the fresh smell of newly printed paper in the morning!

Even if yours inner otaku doesn’t feel the same, consider this: You won’t be as tempted to check your Facebook or Twitter if you’re using offline sources.

If you’re a beginner, then consider getting a children’s dictionary. Many children’s dictionaries use ふりがな (kana characters used to indicate the pronunciation of a kanji character), include kanji stroke-order, don’t use complicated explanations, have example sentences and more.

I recommend:

小学国語学習辞典 (しょうがくこくごがくしゅうじてん) — “Elementary Language Learning Dictionary” learn japanese with books

This is a great dictionary for those who get easily distracted or bored. This dictionary is aimed at elementary and grade-schoolers.

Although it won’t tell you the meaning of more complicated words like 酵素 (こうそ) — enzyme, this dictionary will provide kanji stroke order, synonyms and any extra information about a word that in can squeeze in.

ちびまる子ちゃん漢字辞典 (ちびまるこちゃん かんじじてん) — “Chibi Maruko-chan Kanji Dictionary”learn japanese with books

Aimed toward elementary school students, this book will teach you new and essential characters in a fun way: It’s set up in the style of a comic with ふりがな.

There are different volumes of this dictionary depending on your level of proficiency. Beginners with little to no knowledge of kanji can start with volume one, while beginners who know common characters can try a higher volume.

国語学習辞典 (こくごがくしゅうじてん) — “Japanese Study Dictionary” learn japanese with books

The layout of the dictionary screams beginner-friendly. Navigating through Japanese Study Dictionary is extremely easy, and the dictionary itself includes illustrations, ふりがな and example sentences on top of its twenty-thousand-and-something word entries. Did I mention it includes common phrases too?

漢字学習辞典 (かんじがくしゅうじてん) — “Kanji Study Dictionary” learn japanese with books

If you’re still mastering kanji, but want to make it your focus, then try “Kanji Study Dictionary.” This dictionary shows you essential kanji with stroke order, cute illustrations and even quizzes.

If you’ve already mastered words like 笑顔 (えがお) — a smiling face, 夕立 (ゆうだち) — a sudden rain shower) and 強調する (きょうちょうする) — to emphasize; to stress, or aren’t interested in discovering them in your super awesome children’s dictionary, then a more advanced dictionary or kanji dictionary could be your best bet.

Kanji dictionaries are made for beginners to advanced learners, so browse around and find one that works best for you.

Alternative Dictionaries

Smart phones have a ton of fantastic Japanese dictionary apps to choose from. Most, if not all, these dictionaries will not only define words, but show you example sentences, break down kanji meanings and allow you to save your favorite words.

Two powerful and highly praised dictionary apps are Imi for Android and Imiwa? for iPhone.

Although electronic dictionaries have become a bit dated, they’re great in educational and professional situations. Think about it: If you’re an exchange student in Japan, whipping out a cell phone or tablet to help you translate probably isn’t going to fly over too well in the classroom.

Lastly, if you’re reading blogs, browsing online newspapers or any Japanese content on the web, then consider a browser plug-in like Rikaichan and Rikai, or POPjisyo, which will add a dictionary feature to any Japanese webpage. These plug-ins work on your internet browser and will define Japanese words when your mouse hovers over them.

Hand-written Journals

To this day I still have to take a deep breath and remind myself that writing in kanji is 朝飯前 (あさめしまえ) — a piece of cake. You may dislike writing in Japanese, or totally love it (if anything, you can use the skill to impress your friends) but you should try it and keep at it.

Whenever I come across new vocabulary, I write it in my journal—not once, but around four or five times. My notebooks look something like this:

買う / to buy; 買う / to buy; 買う / to buy; 買う / to buy.

Redundant? Yes. Did I memorize the verb 買う (かう) — to buy? Heck, yeah. Not only will this help with memorization, but it helps you recognize kana and kanji characters too.

Online Journals

An online journal may be easier to keep track of. I have a private blog dedicated to tracking new grammar that I’ve come across in articles, books, conversation and other blogs.

You can use new grammar and vocabulary that you’ve learned to construct a few sentences of your own. There’s no limit to how much or how little you write.

Another great place to practice what you’ve learned is Lang-8, which is a website where users can post a journal in any language, and native speakers from around the world can correct or comment on the entry!

Now that we’re well prepared with dictionaries and log journals in hand, let’s learn to read in Japanese—step by step.

Learn Japanese with Books: 6 Fail-proof Steps to Reading in Japanese

Training yourself to read in another language doesn’t have to be daunting. After all, reading isn’t a race. There aren’t any rules saying how fast or how much you have to read.

So feel free to take your time absorbing the text and start reading sentence by sentence, then paragraph by paragraph and finally page by page. 高きに登るは低きよりす (たかきにのぼるは ひくきよりす): Learn to walk before you run (literally: “to climb high, one must start low”) .

Here are six steps you can follow when reading new material, plus a short text sample for you to try it out right now!

1. Read the article once, without any assistance (no dictionaries)

このお店では、ほとんどの料理に玉ねぎを使っています。もし宗教の理由で匂いの強い野菜を食べない方は、注文の際言ってください。特別に玉ねぎを使わないで作ります。

(このみせでは、ほとんどのりょうりに たまねぎをつかっています。もし しゅうきょうのりゆうで においのつよいやさいをたべないかたは、ちゅうもんのさい いってください。とくべつに たまねぎをつかわないで つくります。)

(At this restaurant, onion is used for most of the dishes. If you don’t eat strong-smelling vegetables due to religious reasons, please let us know upon your order. We will cook a special dish without onion.)

I’m always reminding myself not to skim through something, but to stop for a few seconds and really read it.

2. Log and define all new words, grammar and kanji characters

このお店では、ほとんどの料理に玉ねぎを使っています。もし宗教理由で匂いの強い野菜を食べない方は、注文の際言ってください。特別玉ねぎを使わないで作ります。

玉ねぎ(たまねぎ) — onion
宗教 (しゅうきょう) — religion
理由 (りゆう) — reason; motive
特別 (とくべつ) — special

See all that red? There’s usually a lot more when I read new texts.

If you can’t remember the meaning of a familiar word, then make sure to highlight it and relearn! What kept me from advancing in my studies was ignoring words I “kind of” knew, and then later I forgot them completely.

3. Briefly review new material

How you review new material is up to you. Instead of making flashcards, I’m the kind of person who memorizes new content by writing it over, and over, and over… and over.

4. Re-read the article

5. Read it out loud

This is so important! This ensures that you not only recognize a word by its kanji, but you know how to say the word too.

Read. It. Out. Loud.

6. Study the new vocabulary and try reading the article again in a couple of days for extra practice

Sound good? Now let’s take a look at where you can find Japanese material to read, so you can put these six steps in action!

Where to Find Japanese Books to Read

Just because you’re a beginner doesn’t mean you can’t read current events in a language besides your native tongue. Likewise, advanced learners can broaden their vocabulary and learn formal writing styles from news articles.

Japanese Newspapers for Beginners

NHK Web Easy

NHK Web Easy thought of everything when it comes to creating easy-to-understand news articles that focus on current events, technology and more.

Readers can take advantage of the built-in dictionary: Simply hover your mouse over words you don’t know and BAM—they’re defined.

There’s also audio and video correspondents to popular articles.

Hiragana Times

Hiragana Times publishes a magazine in Japanese (with ふりがな) and English once a month. If you’re like me (broke), then you’ll be pleased to know that Hiragana Times offers their older issues to be downloaded free on your smart phone or tablet. You can also download a PDF copy on your computer.

A subscription is definitely worth it, though, since it offers a lot of great features for learners—like an audio version of the magazine.

Beginners may also like Kodomo Times and Kodomo Asahi, which are both aimed towards children.

Japanese Newspapers for Intermediate and Advanced Levels

Asahi Shimbun Digital

Asahi Shimbun is a national newspaper that leans more towards the left side of politics. They cover a huge variety of news, plus their カルチャー(かるちゃー) — “culture” section features things like the latest Miyazaki films, amazing musicals touring Japan and hidden treasures or festivals in Kyoto!

To read a full article, you’ll usually have to be an Asahi Shimbun subscriber. For those of you overseas, you have the option of being a digital subscriber.

Yomirui Online

Yomiuri Shimbun gives its readers in-depth articles and does great coverage on politics. The newspaper leans toward the conservative (and sometimes right) side of politics. Those who are interested in all things political and Japanese are sure to find an abundance of reading material from Yomiuri Shimbun.

Mainichi Shimbun

The Mainichi Shimbun offers a good balance between local and world news, opinion and society. The somewhat left-leaning newspaper itself is printed twice a day in large cities. Besides covering the latest highlights from around the globe, the Mainichi Shimbun has large entertainment, editorial and intellectual columns.

If you’re looking for the latest news in Japan or enjoy editorials, then the Minichi Shimbun might be a good choice for you.

Japanese Books for Beginners

Surprisingly, there’s a lot of great reading material for those who are just starting to pick up Japanese.

Children’s books and fairy tales like are a lot of fun to read, but personally they don’t hold my attention for very long—unless they’re captivating and downright adorable, like these. If you are someone who enjoys something slightly more captivating, then I highly recommend:

Japanese Graded Readers learn japanese with books

Japanese Graded Readers are books that are broken into levels starting from “Level 0,” which doesn’t require readers to know kanji. Level 0 starts with basic sentence structures and focuses on the present and past tense. Each book comes with audio narration, which is great for shadowing practice!

These books and many more are available from White Rabbit Japan, a great source for Japanese reading and learning material in general. Visit their site to find manga, textbooks, dictionaries, flashcards and more graded readers.

The Great Chokochoko Library

If you’re looking for something short and sweet, then the Great Chokochoko Library offers brief reading material designed for JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) levels N5-N1. The reading material is presented as a PDF document so you can view it on mobile devices or print it out.

10分で読めるお話 (じっぷんでよめるおはなし) learn japanese with books

10分で読めるお話 are—you guessed it—a series of books that require just ten minutes of reading time.

Although they’re aimed at Japanese elementary students, the topics tend to be a bit more relevant to everyday situations than children’s fables.

Japanese Books for Intermediate and Advanced Levels

For those of you who have practiced, worked up to an intermediate level and are ready to advance, then your focus should be on introducing new kanji and grammar by reading anything and everything you can get your hands on. This includes newspapers and magazines, blogs, street signs, the back of ramen packaging (here’s to anyone living a convenience store diet) and anything else that comes your way.

Don’t hold back when it comes to trying new reading material, even if it seems challenging at first. If you haven’t already, take a look at:

Aozora Bunko

Aozora Bunko is an online collection of Japanese literature which is either out-of-copyright, or shared freely by their authors.

Haruki Murakami’s Short Stories learn japanese with books

Murakami’s short stories are a wonderful introduction to Japanese literature, as they aren’t too lengthy. “Onna no Inai Otokotachi,” a collection of some of his recent short stories, is a great starter!

Some more of Japan’s most popular contemporary writers include:

  • 北方 謙三 (きたかた けんぞう) — Kenzo Kitakata
  • 桐野 夏生 (きりの なつお) — Natsuo Kirino
  • 大江 健三郎 (おおえ けんざぶろう) — Kenzaburo Ooe
  • 角田 光代 (かくた みつよ) — Mitsuyo Kakuta
  • 小川 洋子 (おがわ ようこ) — Yoko Ogawa
  • 星 新一 (ほし しんいち) — Shinichi Hoshi
  • 古井 由吉 (ふるい よしきち) — Yoshikichi Furui
  • よしもと ばなな — Banana Yoshimoto

Digital Library from the Meiji Era

If you’re trying to broaden your knowledge of reading styles, then the Digital Library from the Meiji Era and Texts Classical are both great portals into past Japanese literature (mainly in the Meiji period).

If you’d like to focus on something less broad, then try looking for influential writers from the past. Some famous literally figures in the Meiji era include:

  • 国木田 独歩 (くにきだ どっぽ) — Doppo Kunikada
  • 樋口 一葉 (ひぐち いちよう) — Ichiyou Higuchi
  • 森 鷗外 (もり おうがい) — Ougai Mori
  • 漱石 夏目 (なつめ そうせき) — Souseki Natsume
  • 島崎 藤村 (しまざき とうそん) — Touson Shimazaki
  • 与謝野 晶子 (よさの あきこ) — Akiko Yosano

Other authors from the Taishou and Shouwa periods include:

  • 志賀 直哉 (しが なおや) — Naoya Shiga
  • 泉 鏡花 (いずみ きょうか) — Kyoka Izumi
  • 円地 文子 (えんち ふみこ) — Fumiko Enchi
  • 平林 たい子 (ひらばやし たいこ) — Taiko Hirabayashi
  • 安部 公房 (あべ こうぼう) — Koubou Abe
  • 三島 由紀夫 (みしま ゆきお) — Yukio Mishima
  • 林 芙美子 (はやし ふみこ) — Fumiko Hayashi
  • 河野 多惠子 (こうの たえこ) — Taeko Kouno

Learn to Read in Japanese with Manga

Before you sit down with your new mountain of manga, I recommend you take a look at the website Hi Native (only available on mobile devices).

Sometimes manga uses gags and puns that are hard to understand if you didn’t grow up in Japan. My favorite manga often reference old Japanese cartoons and dialects that I didn’t know existed! When this happens I go to my bestie, Hi Native, snap a picture of the manga panel, and native/advanced Japanese speakers will explain the joke to me in simple Japanese (or English).

Manga also uses lots of onomatopoeia, which can contribute to the overall atmosphere of a scene. In comics, onomatopoeia are used like sound effects. Sometimes the onomatopoeia itself acts as a punchline. As a quick reference, you can search for onomatopoeia using the Jaded Network, or for a more in-depth introduction to onomatopoeia, check out this post.

四コマ漫画 (よんこま まんが) — Four-panel manga

四コマ漫画 are manga that contain four panels on each page. Think of the popular “Azumanga Daioh” or “Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun.” What’s great about these kinds of comics is that each page is a guaranteed laugh, and all you have to do to read a complete scene is read four panels.

“Yotsuba&!” (よつばと!)

Don’t turn away at the sight of a green-haired, quirky five-year-old on the cover of “Yotsuba&!.” The comic comes from the same 漫画家 (まんがか) — manga artist who wrote “Azumanga Daioh,” and is hilarious no matter your age or Japanese language ability.

What’s great about “Yotsuba&!” (other than its hilarity) is that the panels are large, the text never gets lengthy and many kanji characters have ふりがな.

ドラゴンボール (どらごんぼーる) — “Dragon Ball”

Who doesn’t like “Dragon Ball“? Any fan of the “Dragon Ball” series will be happy to know that the manga is pretty beginner-friendly, since the series is aimed at kids. “Dragon Ball” has large panels, clear text and uses ふりがな.

Since it’s such a popular series, it’s easy to find the manga in your native language (which is great if you want to make sure that you’re getting the story).

Other Fun Manga for Learning to Read in Japanese

Other interesting (or plain cute) children’s manga that beginners may like are:

  • ドラえもん (どらえもん) — “Doraemon
  • チーズスイートホーム (ちーずすいーとほーむ) — “Chi’s Sweet Home
  • カードキャプターさくら (かーどきゃぷたー さくら) — “Cardcaptor Sakura
  • しろくまカフェ (しろくまかふぇ) — “Shirokuma Cafe

 

You did it! You read through this article like a champ! Maybe you even bookmarked some new reading material that you’ll be scanning after finishing these last couple of sentences.

Reading in Japanese can be challenging at first, but it does get easier. Set aside a designated reading goal each day – something small that you can easily accomplish. It could be, “I will read one page of manga” or “I will read for 10 minutes straight.”

And then keep on practicing, step by step.

If all goes well, the next time you find yourself at Kyoto’s International Manga Museum, you’ll be able to read any book on the shelves!

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