On this page I will give my take on how to start reading Japanese novels and continue improving your reading skills. There are four parts to learning a language, which are reading, writing, speaking, and listening. As with the rest of this site, this is mostly about the reading part.
I don’t have any formal credentials on the subject, so this is just the opinion of someone who can read most Japanese novels comfortably without a dictionary, but would prefer to have one. As for speaking and listening, I wouldn’t sound very smooth or natural at all, but I think I could communicate about almost anything with someone who is patient and can speak with the standard dialect. Also, I think I could write about any topic, but it wouldn’t be mistaken for a native Japanese speaker’s writing. I have almost zero handwriting ability left. I don’t have any reason to write or speak Japanese in my life at the moment, however I try to make sure that what I learn during reading could be transferred over to those skills if needed. In this article, I’ll talk about how I got to this point, and what I would do differently if I were starting now.
I think that language classes are very helpful for giving you a foundation. For reading, the grammar foundation is key, and I think classes are a great way to get this. Also, for me, classes were a lot of fun because you are with other people learning Japanese. If you are serious about learning to read real Japanese material though, you will most likely be studying a lot more outside of class than most of your classmates.
I highly recommend classes for those that are in the situation where they are available. However, not everyone has the opportunity, so don’t let that bother you or hold you back. There are so many resources on the internet now, that you should be able to find both information and a learning community with a bit of effort.
Make sure you don’t expect to learn enough vocabulary to be able to read material intended for a native reader from any type of class. You will definitely need to study vocabulary on your own. In my case, I needed to learn over an order of magnitude more vocabulary than I expected to be able to read fluently, and even after studying Japanese for over 15 years, I still run into lots of words I don’t know every day. I’m amazed at how many words there are to learn, and I think that’s a good thing because it keeps learning interesting no matter how much time you put into it.
When to start
When you want to read Japanese novels, the first thing you need to decide is when to start reading. I recommend you start as soon as you have a solid foundation in grammar. Reading will really reinforce all the grammar you have learned. I began reading novels after two and a half years of as many college level Japanese classes as I could take and a lot of studying on my own. I had read through about 20 or so volumes of manga before I jumped into reading novels.
I started with a Murakami Haruki novel, and it was very, very slow. That didn’t bother me, because I’m motivated by learning new words. I would look up every word I didn’t know in an electronic dictionary, which took a long time since there were lots of unknown kanji on every page. I typed in names of radicals to locate kanji. After looking up a word several times I would realize it was important and memorize it. I continued this process through several novels. I don’t remember exactly, but it took me at least a few months to get through a book when I first started.
In some of my later Japanese classes, we read through some of the short stories in Bokko-chan sentence by sentence. By making sure you understand everything in a short story and re-reading it, you can get the feeling of what it is like to read fluently. Of course you need to read novels to learn to read novels, but reading very short stories, blog posts, news articles and other quick items for thorough understanding in addition to novels helped me improve my reading ability, and also gave a sense of accomplishment, which helps sustain motivation.
Looking up words
I usually look up most words I don’t know unless I can tell they aren’t too important to the story, such as a tree name, or if I am in a section of the book where I really want to find out what happens next. I often don’t look up many words near the end of a book.
I need an efficient way to look up words, and I’m very thankful I have never had to rely on paper dictionaries. After using up two electronic dictionaries I switched to using an iOS dictionary called 大辞林 on an iPod Touch. If I need to look up kanji I can just draw it with my finger instead of messing with radical names. On the electronic dictionaries I used a mix of Japanese->English and Japanese->Japanese dictionaries, but after switching to the iPod I only used the J->J dictionary and didn’t look back. Now I use the same J->J dictionary on the iPhone.
Many times I look up words just to verify the readings of kanji, even when the meaning is obvious. I like to know readings so that my reading vocabulary can transfer to listening or speaking.
In addition to looking up words, I often need to look up combinations of words that don’t make sense together or I need more background information about a topic, and the internet is amazing for helping with this. I usually start out with Google. I’m often pointed to the same places for certain types of searches. If I see some strange grammar in modern writing, I can often find the phrase in http://kotowaza-allguide.com. If there is a phrase that needs a quick explanation, someone else has usually already asked about it on http://chiebukuro.yahoo.co.jp, and if I find a combination of words that I can’t quite grasp the meaning of, I may be more likely to find it in a thesaurus than a dictionary. If I run into some content where I’m lacking background information I go to the Japanese Wikipedia site and may jump over to the English site if I need to tie information together with pre-existing English based knowledge.
Learning vocabulary with Anki
I started using https://ankiweb.net a few years ago to help with vocabulary. I would slowly learn new words without it, but it has worked as a catalyst for memorization. I wish I had known about spaced repetition software like Anki a long time ago, because paper flash cards and the many other methods I tried were relatively very inefficient.
I usually add words to Anki right when I look them up, but I only add words or phrases that I expect to see again soon or that I really like. To judge if a word is common or not, I will put it in a web application called 用例.jp, which is an awesome search engine for example sentences. If I get over 1000 hits, then I will definitely put the word or phrase into Anki and if it is over a few hundred I will consider it. Otherwise I move on.
I usually grab a few sentences around a word or phrase, then create a fill in the blank card. There are a lot of features available if you download Anki, but I find the web version does everything I need.
I also listen to, and sometimes shadow, podcasts to maintain listening comprehension, even though it is at a pretty low level compared to reading. I mostly listen to NHK ラジオニュース. I don’t want the reading ability to be completely decoupled from spoken language, even though spoken language is low priority for me. Also, it is very satisfying to enter a word into Anki, and then hear it in a podcast later. That is the point where I know I have a learned a new word. Even if your goal is only to be able to read, listening skills can still be important for solidifying vocabulary.
I still prefer reading paper books when I can, but I have started reading much more since I discovered the ability to buy books on Kindle, and I read Kindle books way more than paper now. I usually read Kindle books on the phone, which I always have with me. That way I can read a page or two in any free time I can find. Also, it is easier to look up words, add words to Anki, and buy new books.
The Kindle app has a built in Japanese->Japanese dictionary （大辞泉), but one big problem is that it looks up whichever reading comes first alphabetically. That is not always the most common reading of a word, and it is not easy to get to the other readings. The other problem is that conjugated verbs and adjectives can’t be looked up. I will use the built in dictionary whenever I can, but I find that more than half of the time I jump over to the 大辞林 app.
One last issue with the Kindle is that several popular authors, such as 東野圭吾, 有川浩, and 村上春樹 don’t release many books digitally. I’m sure there are many other authors and books that you can only find in a paper version.
To wrap things up, my advice is to work hard on grammar first, picking up as much vocabulary as you need to understand grammar examples. It may be good to learn at least a bit of hand writing in the beginning, because you will probably need to get the stroke order correct for a dictionary to recognize kanji you look up with handwriting input.
As soon as you have mastered the grammar basics, start trying to read. I don’t mind reading slowly so I started with something that interested me, but if you are someone who needs to read faster to stay motivated, which seems common, start with something easier like children’s books, graded readers or easy news.
I would be careful about choosing children’s books unless you are very interested in them, because some use a lot of hiragana, which is great for a Japanese child who can already speak Japanese, but a non-child, non-native learner may appreciate the help of kanji to differentiate between the maddening amount of homophones in Japanese.
Once you start reading novels, you will need to look up or research a lot of words. Many people don’t like to look things up as they read because it interrupts the story, but that doesn’t seem to work well for me. If you don’t want to look things up while you’re reading, then find some way, such as highlighting, to study unknown vocabulary when you are finished reading.
While reading, I would use Anki with fill in the blank style cards. Triage what words are added based on a threshold of number of hits on 用例.jp. You only want to add in the most useful or interesting words when you’re getting started or you’ll get overwhelmed with words you won’t use often.
Also, I would recommend dropping any kind of translation to English as you are reading and use a Japanese->Japanese dictionary. A dedicated dictionary app is probably going to be more than $20 USD, but I think it’s worth it to get rid of the ads on the internet and speed things up for a heavy user.
Finally, I would make sure to back up reading with listening, so you can tie in what you learn while reading to the spoken language.
This is how I would approach learning to read if I were starting from scratch. It is a long process. However, slowly, you will be able to read faster and with more comprehension. I never had a moment where I could suddenly read, but have only slowly improved with lots of exposure, and I will try to continue this trend. I hope you find my experience and thoughts helpful. Leave a comment if you have other ideas and insights to add.