Yomiko Readman
Yomiko Readman

Do’s and Don’ts of Learning to Read Japanese

Reading is probably the hardest part of learning Japanese, so I thought I’d share some strategies that helped me improve my reading while I was in Japan. This is directed at people who are taking Japanese classes. I don’t have any experience with self-study from scratch so I can’t offer much advice there. If I had to describe my basic study strategy, it would be the “let it all flow naturally” method. I’m not big on flashcards, and I’ve found that I learn kanji best in context and at my own pace, so that’s the sort of approach I’ll be taking.

1. Don’t wait for your reading ability to just happen. It’s frustrating to take Japanese for a year (or two or three) and then finally get your hands on some Japanese reading material, only to find that you can’t make out much at all. This was really frustrating for me because I took Spanish before I started Japanese classes, and after two years of Spanish, I could read short stories. Unfortunately kanji adds that extra layer of complexity, so Japanese isn’t as easy to dive into. I was constantly looking at things I wanted to read, getting frustrated, saying “not now,” and waiting until “later” when I would “get better.” Of course, I wasn’t studying kanji in any sort of disciplined way, so my ability to flip books open and just understand them didn’t really improve while I was playing the waiting game. What I had to do was pick a book, grab a dictionary, and just dive into it.

2. Do be reasonable about the difficulty level of your reading material. If you don’t know a lot of vocabulary or kanji, trying to read the newest best seller might be too much at first. You don’t want to dive into something so difficult that you just get frustrated and give up. You’re going to be looking up a lot of words in the dictionary, but you still want to be able to enjoy yourself. Good things to check for are the density of kanji on the page compared to hiragana and katakana, and the presence of furigana (the little hiragana above the kanji that tell you how to read it). Lots of kanji compound words indicate something formal and complicated, and some writers just like to use more kanji outside of the general use ones, which adds extra challenge.

3. Do understand that children’s books have their limits. If you’re like me, you learned most of the grammar structures necessary to make sense of Japanese in your first few years of classes, but what you lack is vocabulary, kanji, and different ways of filling out those grammar structures. While I was in Japan, I really wanted to read books, partly because I was trying to break away from the anime-nerd stereotype, and partly because if I got into a manga series I would have to buy each volume separately. I remember being really excited when I found a collection of short stories targeted at late elementary or middle school students, because most of the words had furigana. It was really easy to look up words in the dictionary I had at the time, but I soon got bored with the content. I wasn’t looking forward to finding out what happened next in the story. I could imagine 5th grade me being fascinated by the plot progressions, but 20-year-old me wanted to do anything but read about what happens to a group of 6th graders who accidentally eat magical curry that sends them back in time to meet their parents. When I started reading a book I actually cared about a few months later, I was much more successful, even though the reading level was much more difficult.

I think manga might be a good alternative for this. Lots of manga (although not all, by any means) have furigana for their kanji, and they tend to appeal to a wide age range. So manga is a great way to get familiar with kanji and vocab and casual spoken Japanese. The stumbling block with manga, though, is that casual spoken Japanese, especially male speech, can be hard to penetrate at first. When I was starting to read manga, I found myself frequently trying to look up a word only to realize that it wasn’t a dictionary word at all but a male casual form of a word. Trying to parse out real dictionary words from slang can be confusing.

4. Do invest in an electronic dictionary if it’s within your means. I love mine to pieces and it has made it easier not only to read kanji I don’t know, but the example sentences help me properly use words I look up and understand nuances I wouldn’t have been able to figure out on my own. That being said, there are plenty of other ways of looking up words, such as smartphone apps and Nintendo DS software.

5. Do learn the kanji radicals. This is on my to-do list. It will help you in so many ways. You can look up kanji by radical in a paper dictionary or a lower-end electronic dictionary without a writing pad. You can describe kanji to your friends and teachers. You can break kanji down in your head. It just seems like a good idea.

6. Don’t just memorize all the general use kanji out of context. Unless that makes you happy and just works for you. Every time I’ve tried to go through a book or an app that’s just kanji, not only do I get bored out of my mind, I get lost because it really doesn’t help me use or remember them that well, so I usually give up. What I try to do is memorize kanji within the context of words, and then little by little I get a feel for what the readings are and which is used when. It won’t get me prepared quickly for any sort of kanji test, but it’s a lot less painful than drilling and memorizing.

7. Don’t be afraid to write in your books. When I’m reading a novel I write in my own furigana as I look up kanji. It helps cement the reading in my memory, saves me from having to look up a word again when I know I saw it 3 pages ago, and it can also serve as a nice little progress chart when you flip through the book and see a decrease in the number of words with furigana. 

8. Do remember that everything you can read counts. If improving reading is your goal, read everything and anything. Bring your dictionary and look up the words in the ads on the train. Read manga, books, your textbooks, video games, anything. Even TV is surprisingly good for learning kanji. Variety programs have a lot of text that shows up on the screen, so if you listen closely you can learn the readings of those characters.

9. Do find a set time to read, where you won’t be doing anything else. For me, this was the train. I took local trains instead of expresses so I could sit down and read, and train time became my designated “reading Japanese time.” It was really good to have this time set aside so I kept making progress.

10. Do fight burn-out. Give yourself an English break if you need one. Don’t push yourself to read too much at one time. Try not to let your set aside reading time turn into a chore you need to get out of the way. Take things at a pace you can handle so you keep coming back for more.

11. Do focus on rewards, not punishments. Japanese, like anything, is easiest to learn when it’s fun. Think about what got you interested in Japanese in the first place. If it’s something like anime, video games, a particular author, or a particular band, then pursue that. Those things count as studying too. Gather up a collection of reading (and listening) material that you’re interested in and excited about. It’s good to have a variety so you can keep Japanese in your life while you stave off burn-out. Read a book when you’re feeling focused, watch a TV drama when you’re tired but you still want to hear some Japanese. Find ways to make the learning process something to look forward to and acknowledge your progress every step of the way, instead of getting caught up on whether or not you meet some outside standard.