Reading Japanese fluently is an ultimate goal for many learners. Here are some tips for traveling along that path.
This series has covered Japan’s three main scripts, from hiragana and katakana to three different articles on kanji. Knowing all of them is essential to reading Japanese—but there is more to the skill than that. While it is easy to get drawn into counting how many characters one has mastered, knowledge of the roughly 2,000 jōyō kanji—said to be required for basic literacy—does not automatically bring an ability to read fluently.
Ultimately, there is no substitute for practicing reading itself. At first, short pieces in language learning textbooks are enough to fuel improvement. After a while, however, it’s time to make the jump to texts written for native speakers. Given the vast amount of reading material out there, though, It can be difficult to know where to start. When making a selection, one key factor to consider is motivation—what will really get you reading, and get more out of it for you? Related to this is the level of the text, as picking something too hard dampens both interest and results.
The most motivating approach is to pick the same kinds of material you enjoy reading in your own language, whether that is news or other articles, comics, games, fiction, nonfiction, or something else. For example, in my own journey to reading fluency, I’ve spent a lot of time leafing through mysteries by Higashino Keigo and Murakami Haruki’s novels. The importance of personal tastes makes it difficult to give specific advice that will fit everyone, but below are a few ideas for navigating the seas of material available.
Finding Your Level
One way in is to follow social media accounts that match your interests. Twitter, for example, can provide an endless stream of short texts, which sometimes act as tasters for longer articles. If you aren’t sure where to begin, this can also be a way of discovering Japanese websites that you want to read more regularly. While some users’ net slang can be challenging, there are accounts that use simple Japanese for learners, such as @yasashiinews. The website NHK News Web Easy is also a good source of topical stories written in easier language.
Outside Japan, printed resources may be hard to come by and expensive, but for those living in the country, there’s a dizzying array of options, at better value for money than materials designed for foreign learners. The problem then becomes finding your level. Some books are aimed at different elementary school grades, and during my earlier learning I used these as a rough guide. I also realized that bunkobon (paperbacks) are better for study, as they tend to provide pronunciation for rarer kanji through furigana, while tankōbon (hardbacks) do not.
Reading Fast and Slow
Reading for study can be divided into two broadly different types. Intensive reading is about fully understanding a shorter, more difficult text, carefully checking unknown vocabulary in the dictionary on the way. This is the kind of reading most commonly encountered in the classroom, where there are often questions to check comprehension. Translating a text also requires intensive reading.
Extensive reading is about broadly understanding something longer, but simpler, without stopping to dissect it, and is associated with reading for pleasure. This provides benefit by maximizing input, allowing the reader to naturally pick up vocabulary in context. By contrast, intensive reading offers the chance to get to grips with words and phrases that require more effort to learn. Combining the two in one’s study can give the best of both worlds.
Some research suggests that fluent extensive reading and learning requires 98% comprehension of the text. Before getting stuck into a book that looks interesting, you can estimate your comprehension by counting the number of words you do not know on the first page and roughly working out what percentage of the total that is. While this is only an approximate guide, if you do not know 10% or more, it indicates the book will likely be very challenging, and is more suited to intensive reading.
Intermediate learners face a plateau as the steady ascent through elementary levels flattens out into a sense of diminished progress. This coincides with the need to move beyond textbooks and find something more challenging to read. For busy adult learners, in particular, it can be a tough journey of trial and error to find a constant stream of reading materials that are both engaging and at the right level. (I say this from personal experience.)
So, I will finish by stressing again the importance of motivation. Reading in general builds familiarity with many different kinds of grammatical structures that are difficult to memorize out of context. I enjoyed Higashino’s mysteries, and at the same time found that they helped me understand a wide variety of texts in my working life, from corporate reports to political articles. Particularly while developing basic ability, I think it is better to read mostly what you like and find motivating than worrying too much about what you should be reading.
Here follows a scattering of suggested resources. The list is not comprehensive and is focused on news and books (mainly fiction).
Simple Japanese (yasashii Nihongo) online:
Matcha (mainly travel-related articles)
Nippon.com also has a page in Japanese. Most of our articles appear here first before being translated into English and other languages. (You can click the 日本語 link in the language list at the top of an article to see that one in particular in Japanese.)
The print editions of daily newspapers like the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Asahi Shimbun are especially good for people who like writing on the text while they study. While not simplified, they stick closely to standard Japanese, which makes them easier to read.
If in Japan, ideally I would recommend browsing the children’s section in a bookstore (although the coronavirus outbreak means crowded stores are less than ideal at the time of publication). Once you find an author or publisher you like, it makes it easier to choose your next book. I recommend the Poplar Pocket Bunko (ポプラポケット文庫) imprint for its range of fiction and nonfiction, all clearly marked on the spine at different levels of reading ability.
Supplementary educational materials:
These kinds of books can be great for building up vocabulary on different topics. For example, society (社会; shakai) covers geography and history, or you could brush up on your science (理科; rika). Try くらべてわかるできる子図鑑 (Kurabete wakaru dekiru ko zukan) for students preparing for junior high school entrance exams, or browse to find your own preference. The official study books 漢検漢字学習ステップ (Kanken kanji gakushū suteppu) for the Japan Kanji Aptitude Test can also be surprisingly good for practicing intensive reading of short sentences.
Books for adults:
There is a lot out there. I find writers like Higashino Keigo and Murakami Haruki are both enjoyable and relatively easy to read. If you like checking against a translation, you could try Murata Sayaka’s Konbini ningen and the English version Convenience Store Woman by Ginny Tapley Takemori, or Pengin haiuei by Morimi Tomihiko and its English rendering Penguin Highway by Andrew Cunningham. Again, browsing in a bookstore is recommended, if you have the opportunity.
There are also some books available with English translations and other notes included. These range from the approachable Japanese Stories for Language Learners through the two Read Real Japanese volumes (fiction and essays) to the difficult texts of Breaking into Japanese Literature, which focuses on modern classics.
(Originally written in English. Banner photo: © tkc-taka/Pixta.)