Boost Your Japanese Reading Practice With This Simple 3-Step Process

Boost Your Japanese Reading Practice With This Simple 3-Step Process

Reading is one of the hardest skills for Japanese language learners because of one simple thing: kanji. This so-called “beast” is the only thing that stands in the way of Japanese learners and functional literacy. I’m not letting you off easy. No kanji is no excuse for neglecting your Japanese reading practice.

  1. Don’t Be Illiterate
  2. Reading in Japanese vs. English
  3. The Simple 3-Step Process That Will Boost Your Japanese Reading Practice
  4. Step #1 Learn 2,000 kanji. NOW.
    1. How to Learn the Kanji
  5. Step #2 Gather Reading Tools
  6. Step #3 Read!
    1. Beginner Japanese Reading Practice
    2. Intermediate Japanese Reading Practice
    3. Advanced Japanese Reading Practice
  7. Where to Buy Japanese Books
  8. Tweet me!

Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links. That means, at no cost to you I will receive compensation if you purchase something through an affiliate link. This helps run ThatJapanGirl and ensures I can continue bringing you more awesome content! 🙂 For more info, take a look at this page.

Without kanji you are functionally ILLITERATE.

There’s no other way to put it.

I can’t tell you how many Japanese classes I’ve sat through listening to my classmates stumble through a reading. They couldn’t read the simplest words because they didn’t know the fucking kanji.

While most were concerned about their horrible literacy, most didn’t care enough to actually try and fix it. And by fix it, I mean proactively learning the kanji to prevent this sort of catastrophe in the future.

What’s the difference?

There was a pattern in the students who COULD read smoothly. They learned the kanji.

Chinese students read extremely well in my Japanese classes, because they’d already mastered kanji growing up. And compared to Chinese, Japanese was a piece of cake!

The other students, the ones who actively studied kanji on their own, also read very well. Most of the class seemed amazed whenever an American could read smoothly in Japanese, but it was nothing to be amazed at. It was just evidence of hard work and discipline.

It IS hard. I understand that. I don’t care.

Reading is hard in ANY language. It’s not something that comes naturally to us as humans, the way listening and speaking do.

Reading is a structured system that we use to convey information to one another. And it has to be actively taught to every generation of people that follows.

Many people never learn to read! At least, not to any useful extent. Do you know your country’s literacy rate? I’ll bet it’s lower than Japan.

But if you’re reading this blog, then you have no excuse. If you can read in English, then you can damn well learn to read in Japanese.
infographic comparing reading in japanese vs reading in english

Undeniable Proof

If you still think that reading in English is a blast, just take a look at this lovely poem: “The Chaos.”

It’s a wonder anyone can read anything at all!

My point is this: Reading is hard, no matter what language you do it in.

But if your goal is to become fluent in Japanese, then you’re going to have to learn how to read Japanese. Period.

So, STOP complaining about how “hard” it is to read in Japanese! Suck it up, learn your kanji, and hit the books. If you can read the clusterfuck that is English, you really have nothing to complain about. You’ve been through the reading ringer once already. This time it should be a piece of cake!

The Simple 3-Step Process that will Boost Your Japanese Reading Practice

If you’re going to get good at reading Japanese, then there’s three things you have to do.

First, learn the kanji.

Then, gather some tools.

Last, find shit to read and go wild!

step one to boost japanese reading practice is to learn 2,000 kanji
You’ll need at least 2,000 kanji to have a BASIC level of functional literacy in Japanese.

You need to learn all of them. Now.

I don’t care what stage you’re at. Even beginners can learn the meanings and readings of 2,000 kanji. See it, break it down and figure out how to put it back together. This will give you an insane leg up when it’s time to actually learn how to use the character in a word.

If you’re serious about learning Japanese, then do this as fast as you can.

I’m not going to baby you like everyone else. Other people might tell you that it’s great if you know 100 kanji. 250? Awesome! 500? What?!

Yeah. That’s not enough. That’s not even close. By the time a Japanese child reaches middle school, they’ve already learned a thousand kanji. How old are you? And you only know five hundred??

Yeah, I know. You’re not a Japanese child, so you’re not going to learn to read Japanese the way a Japanese child would.

That’s great!

I don’t want you to learn the way Japanese children do, because Japanese children are horribly inefficient at learning kanji. That’s why it takes them the better part of six years to reach a thousand.

You’re an adult, dammit. So you can fast-track your kanji learning in ways that no Japanese child ever could. What takes them years to do can be accomplished by you in mere months.

So I don’t care what your level is. Beginner or advanced, sit your ass in your study chair and get those kanji on lock. FAST.

2,000 kanji should give you a solid foundation for bolstering your Japanese reading practice.

chart showing time frames for learning 2,000 kanji to boost japanese reading practice

How do I choose the kanji?

There are several lists available for you to choose from. I don’t care which you pick, just make a decision and stick with it.

Jouyou List

This list is sanctioned by the Japanese government, but they keep changing it, so who knows how dated it is. The last update was in 2010 and the list contained 2,136 kanji.

There’s a few downsides to the Joyo list. One is that not all the kanji you’ll need to know are on it. This means that some of the kanji you’ll encounter quite regularly won’t be in your study deck if you choose this list.

The second drawback is there ARE kanji on this list that you’ll probably NEVER use. While it won’t hurt to have a passing knowledge of them, you might get frustrated realizing you spent days learning a set of characters you’ll never need.

Heisig’s List

This list is not organized by how common the kanji is. Rather, it groups kanji by building blocks, which is a very smart move. You learn how to distinguish devilishly similar-looking kanji fairly quickly, like 篤 vs.  罵. The sixth edition of his book and the list on Reddit show 2200 kanji.

Make Your Own List

Start keeping track of the kanji that you come across in your Japanese studies and add them to your own list. This way, you’ll only learn kanji that you see over and over again. You won’t have to waste time on characters you hardly ever see. Time-consuming, but possibly the most rewarding.

How to Learn the Kanji

Kanji is such a hot-button topic for Japanese learners. I’m not going to exhaust this page with all the possible ways you could learn it. A quick Google search should be good for those interested.

Instead, I’m just going to tell you the best way to learn kanji.

Heisig’s method.

Definitely google him, and poke around Kanji Koohii for more information. I promise you, kanji will never be the same after Heisig.

Here, I’ll give a breakdown of the basics of Heisig’s method.

The building blocks of kanji

Heisig didn’t revolutionize kanji study. Rather, he pointed out an obvious solution and put it in a nice package for us all to buy.

Heisig’s method is simple: break the kanji down into smaller pieces, and put them back together again.

Kanji are made up of radicals, which are building blocks for kanji. Each kanji has one or more radicals. You can guess the meaning or even the reading of a kanji by looking at the radical.

Tofugu has an awesome definitive guide on using radicals to learn kanji. Give it a read! It will change your life.

Study the kani

Tofugu has a wonderful service called WaniKani that does all of the hard work for you. For less than $10 a month, you can log in and learn from a pre-made kanji deck.

If you don’t want to pay for the service, you can set up your own kanji study routine. Here’s how I do it.

Choose your building blocks.

You can find a list of traditional kanji building blocks here. You can do this step up front, or as you go. A service like WaniKani will teach you all the radicals first, yet I choose to break the kanji down into radicals as I learn each character. The building blocks may change depending on what I “see” in each kanji. Choose whatever works for you.

Get your list.

I chose this one. All of the kanji goes into an excel spreadsheet, listed by reading.

Get a meaning and a reading.

Use Jisho to find the closest meaning and the most common reading for each kanji.

how to find kanji on jisho.org

Break it down and create the story.

Break each kanji down into its building blocks. Then, use those building blocks to make a story that will put the kanji back together. Make sure to include the kanji’s reading in the story.

For example, 昭 is made up of ⽇ + ⼑ + ⼝. Name these building blocks sun, sabre and mouth. I had previously learned ⼑ + ⼝ go together as 召 and mean seduce. Now I have ⽇ “sun” +  召 “seduce”. Finally, add the reading component in asterisks: *shou*. The final story reads like this:

*Shou* had eyes that ___ like the SUN and could SEDUCE you in a hot second.

Review your flashcards.

Make your flashcards with Anki. The kanji and story go the front, and your goal is to guess the meaning of the kanji. If you are anywhere in the ballpark of a synonym, then pass the card and move on to the next one.

how to make flashcards for kanji

 

The story won’t be perfect

It’s a bit of a stretch trying to come up with a cohesive story for all the kanji and building blocks. But the story doesn’t need to make sense; it just needs to be shocking and memorable so you won’t forget it.

With this method, you’ll learn the meanings and readings of hundreds of kanji in just a few short weeks.

Don’t stop there!

Once you’ve learned 2,000 kanji, many people stop and thinking that they’ve “finished.”

Then, they go out into the real world and try to read Japanese. They’re surprised to find that they still can’t read very well.

That’s because there are thousands of kanji that can be used. The 2,000 you learn up front is only the beginning. They only get native Japanese speakers through school. Once they reach higher education, they are still new character they have to learn.

It’s the same for you, too.

Keep adding to your deck as you go

Once you’ve got your deck of 2,000, don’t close it down. You will constantly come across characters you’ve never seen before. Don’t get discouraged. Just add them to your deck and keep learning.

Go out and learn more kanji on purpose

The smartest thing to do would be to go ahead and add more kanji to your deck up front. Heisig has a third book that adds another thousand or so kanji to his list.

You can also start learning the Jinmeiyou list. This is especially good for advanced Japanese learners who have trouble with people and place names.

It doesn’t matter if you get them all out of the way or tackle them as you go. Kanji is the KEY to bolstering your Japanese reading practice. Without it, you won’t even start the car on the road to your Japanese journey, let alone go very far.

step two to boost your japanese reading practice is gather your japanese reading tools
While you’re learning the kanji, there are some tools you can use to make the going a lot easier. Here are some of my favorites.

Anki SRS

SRS stands for spaced-repetition system. You review knowledge based on how soon you learned it, and how well you know it.

When you see a card, it’s either Pass or Fail. If you pass, then you won’t see the card again for a few days. You know it already! If you fail, you’ll see the card again very soon. You’ll see the same card over and over again until you “learn” it, and then you won’t see it for a little while.

Did you really learn it?

SRS is great because it ensures that you actually learn the material and aren’t just spitting it out from memory. You review what you learned and solidify that knowledge into your long-term memory.

It’s almost impossible to forget what you drill with this software. Pass, and you’ll see it again in 6 months. Fail, and it’s back to the stack for some refreshing reviews.

ReadtheKanji

This site is one of my favorite ways to practice reading the kanji. If you don’t feel like making your own deck of vocabulary flashcards, then this is a nice alternative.

Go through a sentence-based review of all the kanji using meaningful sentences. You only need to be able to type out the correct reading of the kanji. Hence the name of the site! A super easy way to practice reading.

Rikaichan and Rikaikun

These are extensions for Firefox and Chrome, respectively. When enabled, you can see the reading and meaning of virtually any Japanese character on the internet.

This tool is great for intermediate learners who are interested in engaging with more native Japanese materials. For advanced learners, though, it can become a bit of a crutch. Still, it’s a great tool to have at hand just in case you’re super stuck.

Just try not to rely on it too much! And don’t neglect to keep adding new words, phrases and kanji to your flashcards to study. One day you won’t need Rikaikun anymore.

WWWJDic

A very small downside to Rikaikun is that it doesn’t work on all web pages. If the Japanese text is embedded in an image, you won’t be able to hover over it.

What are you to do, then, when you come across a kanji you don’t know? How are you going to search for it?

Jim Breen’s Japanese Dictionary is an amazing tool. You can paste any word, phrase or kanji into the keyword box to get an English translation.

But my favorite feature is the Multi-Radical Kanji Lookup. You’ll need to break down the kanji you’re searching for into its building blocks. (You should be able to do this, thanks to step 1. But if you’re having some trouble, just paste the kanji into the box at the bottom of the page. Search, and the dictionary will spit back its building blocks.)

how to use wwwjdic to look up kanji radicals

A lifesaver

I don’t think my Japanese would be where it is today without this site. It’s been an absolute life-saver for me in learning new words and phrases.

Take the WWWJDic with you wherever you go. Download the app (Android) and use it on the go. On the app, you can even hand-write kanji and get a list of results instantly. Just make sure you have a good grasp of Japanese stroke order. Else the wrong character will pop up!

step 3 to boost your japanese reading practice is to start reading
Okay! Now that all that technical stuff is out the way, it’s time to get to the fun part—actually reading Japanese!

Beginner Japanese Reading Practice*

Dip your foot in with some simple Japanese reading materials. These introductory texts contain lots of furigana to help you understand.

NHK News Easy

This website is specifically designed for “foreigners in Japan” who are learning Japanese. It is a simplified recap of news events of the day. There are furigana over all kanji, so even complete beginners can read this website. You can listen to an audio recording of the article in slow Japanese. If you’re up for a challenge, take a look at this post from Kanji Koohii on how to remove the furigana. (If you’re even more up to it, you can click through to the original article and try to read it! Use rikaichan/rikaikun if you need to :p)

Graded Readers

These are step-by-step books that ease you into reading real Japanese. They cost a pretty penny, but are ultimately worth it if you’re serious about leveling-up your Japanese reading practice. Each box set contains several books, and each book has several stories in it. There are also audio companion CDs read by native Japanese speakers. You can find all the available Japanese graded readers here from White Rabbit Press.

CHALLENGE: よつばと!

Yotsuba&! is frequently touted as a good beginner Japanese-only manga. The main character is a young girl, which means that there aren’t too many complicated words or grammatical patterns used in the books. This was one of the first all-Japanese books I read. I never finished the series, but it was such a confidence boost to finally be able to read something in Japanese! This all-Japanese book is a great challenge for beginners. Buy the English version too and use it to study!

You can find よつばと! here on Amazon

Get よつばと! Book 1 and start reading now!

Intermediate Japanese Reading Practice*

The intermediate resources listed here are mostly bilingual parallel texts. There’s enough English assistance to help guide you through the Japanese material. You’re free to cover up the English bits and just power through the Japanese side 😊

Breaking Into Japanese Literature

you can find breaking into japanese literature here on amazon

Find “Breaking Into Japanese Literature” here on Amazon

This book contains seven short stories by two Japanese authors (Natsume Soseki and Akutagawa Ryunosuke). It covers half of all jouyou kanji, so you should get some good Japanese reading practice with this book. Each page spread has the original Japanese on the left with an English translation on the right. There’s also a dictionary across the bottom of both pages to assist with unknown words. The dictionary defines every single kanji word that appears in the book.

Exploring Japanese Literatureyou can find exploring japanese literature here on amazon

Find “Exploring Japanese Literature” here on Amazon

Three classic tales from 20th century Japanese authors. Same as the last book, but with a few less kanji definitions (you should know them by now!). The book includes an introduction to each author and story. Great for lovers of classic literature.

Read Real Japanese Fiction

you can find read real japanese fiction here on amazon

Find “Read Real Japanese Fiction” here on Amazon

For me, this is where reading really got fun and interesting! This book contains six short stories by contemporary Japanese authors. The Japanese is written in “real” Japanese. That means top-down and right-to-left. On the opposite page is a translation of most words and phrases to help you understand what you read. There’s a Japanese-English dictionary in the back of the book to enhance your study, as well as an audio CD for your active or passive listening practice. There are also notes in the back of the book that offer more information on the nuances of Japanese grammar and culture. Highly recommended for contemporary fiction lovers!

Read Real Japanese Essays

you can find read real japanese essays here on amazon

Find “Read Real Japanese Essays” here on Amazon

Same as the above, with a non-fiction bent! Eight Japanese essays written by contemporary Japanese authors. Includes translations, a dictionary, notes, and an audio CD for your listening practice.

CHALLENGE: Short Stories in Japanese [Parallel Text]

you can find japanese short stories parallel text here on amazon

Find “Short Stories in Japanese” here on Amazon

This book is great for the upper-intermediate learner who is ready to make the transition to advanced Japanese study. Eight short stories by contemporary Japanese authors, with parallel translations in English. The book contains:

  • NO romaji, which forces you to read the kanji
  • Furigana only for the FIRST appearance of each kanji, which forces you to remember it
  • Vertical-set, Japanese-style text
  • NO dictionary; if you need one, look it up on your own!

This will really challenge you to see if you can handle native Japanese material on your own.

CHALLENGE: HEART BOOK [Japanese Only]

you can find the heart book here on amazon

Find “Heart Book [Japanese Edition]” here on Amazon

This cute little book is written completely in Japanese. There’s no English anywhere, no dictionary and no explanations. It was written by a Japanese speaker for Japanese speakers. It’s a collection of 50 short inspirational messages. Each message is only 1 page long, so if you challenge yourself to read one message a day, then you’ll be done with the book within two months! (Or, if you love it as much as I did, you’ll be finished within an hour!)

The Japanese is fairly simple and written in a conversational style, and the kanji is not too complex. A great introductory book for those transitioning into all-Japanese material.

Advanced Japanese Reading Practice

You can read literally whatever you want.

I know, I know—that’s not fair! I’m sorry. But honestly, your study material encompasses all native Japanese language material ever.

Just like you did for your listening practice, all you need to do is set up your environment to bring you Japanese-language books and other reading material as frequently as possible. Look for the news, blogs, books, short stories, fanfiction… you name it. You can read the same things you like to read in English, but now you’ll do it in Japanese.

In addition to news sites, fiction and non-fiction books, there’s an absolutely INFINITE amount of native Japanese language material for you to peruse online. I’m including all of these super fun activities here in the advanced section because they require either 1) the ability to navigate the web in Japanese and/or 2) the ability to read Japanese without the help of the rikaichan/rikaikun extension. If you’re an advanced learner of Japanese, then this shouldn’t be a problem for you. Happy reading!

Blogs

Reading Japanese blogs is a great way to start understanding casual Japanese text. One thing I noticed while reading Japanese blogs is that they’re not like American websites, in that I don’t think many Japanese speakers are looking to monetize their blogs. (I could be wrong, though!) Rather, it seems much more like how blogging used to be in the states: an online personal diary, with lots of pictures!

Use aggregator sites like Blogmura and Ameba to find blogs to read in almost any category you can think of.

Fanfiction + Original Fiction

You read this in English, don’t you? I know you do! One of my favorite Japanese fanfiction sites is novelist.jp. You can read both fanfiction and original fiction here. A search for ハリポタ turned up 129 stories to read. If you want to find other story sites, just google 小説. Lots of stuff will pop up (like Pixiv, 小説を読もう! and Berry’s Café).

Light Novels

These are much easier to break into, thanks to their short paragraphs and fast reading style. If you’re reading online, remember you may not be able to use Rikaikun to hover over the words. You need to be able to use the WWWJDic to either look up the kanji you don’t know by radical, or by drawing them into your app.

If you can do that, then full speed ahead! BookLive is a great site to find light novels. You can read a sample of each light novel right in your browser, and purchase it if you want to read the whole thing (the titles I’ve seen are very affordable, most under $10).

Manga

What would you learn Japanese for if not to read manga! Click here to go to BookLive’s page featuring shojo/josei manga. Again, read a sample right in your browser and buy the comic if you like it! (For the 婦女子 among us, def check out the BL tab 😉)

Visual Novels

The first visual novel I read was ひぐらしのなく頃に. I LOVED the anime, and absolutely loved reading the visual novel as well. My husband likes G線上の魔王 and the グリザイアシリーズ. Steam is a great place to find visual novels, since they’re in the “game” category. Here is a list of all the visual novels on steam that are available in Japanese. (If you need to refine the search, scroll to the bottom on the right hand side of the page until you see “narrow by.” Expand the list and click on Japanese.)

find visual novels on steam for japanese reading practice

Where can I find all these books?

If you’re not in Japan, you can’t just head on over to the nearest Kinokuniya or BOOK-OFF, can you? (Well, if you’re in New York or California, it looks like you can!) So here is a list of ways to get Japanese-language books in the States.

Amazon Kindle

From your browser, navigate to the Books department and scroll down. Watch the left sidebar as you scroll until you see the “Refine by” section. When you locate the “Language” section, click “Japanese” to find all Japanese-language books available on Kindle.

Amazon US

Search the Japanese title of the book you’re looking for and see if it’s sold in the States. I just searched 僕のヒーローアカデミア and found a lot of things that ship in the US. You may need to buy used, but at least you’ll get your hands on a few books 😊

Kinokuniya

This Japanese bookstore chain has a franchise in the US. You can shop their store online and get items shipped straight from their fulfillment center in Japan. They say shipping only takes a week or two. They also have stores in 12 US cities, so you can stop by if you’re lucky.

BookLive JP

I mentioned this resource in the advanced section, because it requires a strong ability to navigate the web in Japanese. You can read books in your browser or on your iPhone/iPad or Android device. BookLive sells manga, light novels, short stories and magazines, among other things. Check it out! You’re sure to find something to read here.

 

Dive in!

Remember, it’s your responsibility to make sure that you get good at Japanese.

Don’t let kanji be your excuse. Tame the beast, as fast as you can, and move on to reading real Japanese.

Immerse yourself in native Japanese material and discover a love for the literature of another culture.

Or maybe just have some fun reading ヘロアカ fanfiction in the language it was intended to be written in!

No matter what, you have to take your language learning into your own hands. No one else is going to make sure that you succeed.

So tell me:

What are you reading right now? Tweet me @thatjapangirl with #imreadingjapanese and let me know what’s on your shelves!

I'm reading {INSERT} to boost my Japanese reading practice! #imreadingjapanese Click To Tweet

If you’re not reading anything, then what the hell are you waiting for? Buy one of the resources on this page and get to reading!

 

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*Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links. That means, at no cost to you I will receive compensation if you purchase something through an affiliate link. This helps run ThatJapanGirl and ensures I can continue bringing you more awesome content! 🙂 For more info, take a look at this page.

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