Reading Japanese books

What is the first thing you try to read, when you are learning a new language? Most likely it is something you are genuinely interested in. But it can be hard to find something interesting to read, that you would also be able to read. For Japanese learners there is a set of books you could buy called Japanese Graded Readers. Every part of this series of books consists of 2 or up to as many as 5 volumes, where each volume contains a series of booklets, for a specific Level of Proficiency. The range covered is Level 0, which estimates that you are an absolute beginner who knows only 平仮名 (ひらがな), up to Level 4. Level 4 is the highest series and the reading material is targeted at people who are estimated to be at JLPT Level 3 or 2 (Japanese Language Proficency Test Level). It is said to be a good series. So far so good, but there is a catch. If you would want to buy all the readers, you would have to expend at least over 462$ because every books costs about 28$. So, even though you would be able to read the material, and considering that this is a great series of books, if money matters then this is certainly no option.

When Graded Readers are out of the race, you could try to find some a regular 本 (ほん) book or a 漫画 (まんが) Manga series. The only difference the choice of reading material makes is, that you will not have the benefit of vocabulary sections, CDs, or grammar point explanations. You will also need a good dictionary, a grammar book to look the grammar points up, and enough time. Because it is said to be a very slow process to read anything at all, and it can be frustrating to only understand some parts of a book, or Manga, or only some grammar points.

No work, no fun! But, hold it right there!

You don’t need to choose a 漫画 or book that seems like you could be able to read at your level. You will not need a pricey Graded Reader, that takes you under it’s wings, and still does only so much for your reading skills. No, forget about it! When it comes down to reading practice, even though you don’t know all the grammar, or vocabulary, in your new books. As long as you know the 漢字 you will be fine.

Before we continue let me ask you the following question. Do you know a good Japanese author, whose books you have read many times over, but in your native language? If so, visit your Bookstore, and ask if they can order them for you. If you don’t know any authors, try one of 村上春樹 Murakami Haruki, his are really great. Alternatively you can also check out Online stores, and see if they have some books, that you would might like to read. Also you should try to get a hold of the audio-book version of your chosen book, in both your native and the Japanese language. Once you are decided, and the books have arrived, you are ready.

Start out by reading your favorite book in English first, before even think about trying to read your Japanese copy. But i want to read Japanese, and not something i already know, i can almost hear you protesting! Right so, you do want to read Japanese, and you will read it, in time. You should start out by reading your English copy first, to have a fresh memory of the content of your book.

With that out of the way, go ahead, and try to read something in your Japanese book, start at page 1.

You might be able to read it, but you might be inclined to think at your first try, that you don’t understand much at all. But, hey! Use your English copy, and use it as a cross reference, and you at least will get the gist of the meaning of a sentence.

Now, you would think my next advice will be to read slowly, word by word, and try to understand as much as you can. Or, go and look up all those words on a page you don’t know in your 辞書, and take out your grammar books, to make sense of all the sentences you are trying to read, starting at page 1. If you thought that you are wrong! I never would suggest something like that. I told you, there is a better way, and this is how it’s done. Now that we have our books, and audio-books ready, all we have to do is to refine the method.

  • Open up your Japanese copy of the book.
  • Hold a pencil ready, or some markers, because you will need them now.
  • Try to find all the grammar points in the book you already know.
  • Try to find all the vocabulary and be on the lookout for conjugated words you know.
  • Now mark all items you found with either your pencil or a post-it.

You are doing this, because once you found out what you already know, you can fully concentrate on those words, grammar points, and vocab, you  don’t know yet.

  • In this step you will make a list of those vocabulary words and grammar points you don’t yet know.
  • Open your grammar book, and find out as much as you can, about the points you were able to identify. If you cant find anything in there, or you don’t have any such book, check the Internet.
  • If you have bought the audio book, you should use it, and try to shadow the spoken text. Shadowing means to speak along, while the actor speaks, so you will get some speaking practice for free.
  • Even though this process might have taken some time, now you are well prepared and ready, to start reading your book.

The reason why i encourage you to use this method is because most people take the harder path. And i already gave you a hint, how this path looks like. With my suggested method, however, you will be able to enjoy the reading experience to the fullest. There is still some work involved here, but i never promised there wouldn’t be any, did i? As you can see, dear reader, all it sometimes takes is a little change in methods, and something that seemed difficult and tedious at first, turns out to be easy and fun. I hope this will help you, and all the best, when you start reading your first Japanese book. Let me know how it goes.

2 responses to “Reading Japanese books

  1. This is more studying a text than reading.
    I suggest start with something aimed at children but interesting, like harry potter, which has furigana fro many words. Read with a laptop nearby. It’s ok if you don’t understand the odd word or grammar point, this is normal for children reading in their native language and u can often guess from the context, which is a natural way to learn. When u totally lose track of what’s happening just type things u don’t know into the computer and use rikaichan or something to figure it out. Once you’re back on track just keep reading. Often after you’ve learned a few new phrases they’ll pop up again and again. The advantage of this method is that you have patches where you are purely reading. You might go a page or two without having to look something up. This means you build a your pace, you get into the story and it becomes a pleasure rather than hard work. Context is your ally here. If you’ve read harry potter already it’s easier to keep track of what’s happening and many words and grammar can be figured out instantly from the context. I can bomb thru 20 odd pages an evening and u can see you reading ability increase b 4 your eyes.

  2. Welcome!

    Thanks for taking your time to leave a comment! Yours are all very good tips, to make the process of learning to read smoother for those, who have only just started out on their adventure.

    I choose the difficult path. I never tried to read any books with Furigana, just because they make reading easier. Looking back at the date of the entry, and where i were back then compared to now, I think it was the right decision. Even though it was hard work rather than fun at the beginning, and deciphering of parts of a text or book, rather than reading it was worth going the extra mile.

    I still use Rikaisama to check readings, but without any definitions for the words, and J>J only dictionaries. And I do think I will have to rely on Rikaisama and my trusted J>J dictionaries for quite a while longer. It is still often the case, no matter how many words I already learned, and no matter how many readings and odd readings I already know, there are always more I haven’t seen yet.

    Other than that, I have finished reading a good amount of books by now, among which are some really difficult one’s. And some, I wish to re-read, because by the time I was trying myself on them, it was in the phase of deciphering. 😉

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