Basic Tips to Read Books in Japanese

As I mentioned earlier this year, one of my objectives for 2021 is to read in Japanese more and expand my vocabulary. Since last December, I have finished reading two fictional books and one poetry book, and I am halfway reading a collection of suspense short stories. In the process, I reflected on a few tips I thought I would share with you. 

How to Choose Your Book According to Your Level

Here I will be referring to the Japanese Language Proficiency Test levels, but please note that it is not exact science and only to give a rough idea how much language knowledge I think would be necessary.

Getting Started: The Best Books for Beginners in Japanese

I remember when I was a beginner in Japanese, someone advised me to start by reading illustrated books for small children (called “ehon” in Japanese). However, I have found out this was not the best option for me: there were often vocabulary words or onomatopoeias that, even though are very entertaining for Japanese children, were yet unknown to me and far from being on my priority list in my quest for reaching a conversational level. This tip might work for you if you carefully select your books, but I would not recommend it personally.

If you are a beginner but want to start reading, books designed for learners of the Japanese language are a good first choice. I remember having pleasure reading books from the “Reberubetsu Nihongo Tadoku Raiburarii” collection. Each pack includes five or six small books with a different story. The level zero packs can be read by beginners who have about 350 words of vocabulary and know basic grammar. The level one packs are for people who are aiming at the JLPT N4 level, and so on up to the level four packs which are for people aiming at the JLPT N2 level.

Bonus points for this collection: there are furigana on all the kanji, and the books come with a CD so you can work on your listening skills as well. The narration is pretty good, which helped me remember new vocabulary.

Woman reading a book

Intermediate Levels

When you start getting more vocabulary, and are aiming for JLPT N4 level, reading manga is a great option if you choose them carefully. First, make sure to choose manga for a younger audience because they have furigana on top of all the kanji. This will help you memorize new kanji without even realizing it. If your aim is primarily to get useful vocabulary, then shonen manga (mangas written for a young male audience), especially the adventure ones, may not be the best choice. If you are a fan of “One Piece” or “Kimetsu no Yaiba” (Demon Slayer in English), you will probably enjoy it a lot, but you will maybe remember more names for cool sword techniques than vocabulary you will need to use with your Japanese friends. Some characters are also written so that they talk in a funny or outdated way and there is a risk you will memorize ways of talking that will not be appropriate. 

Sports manga and manga that take place in a school setting, or pieces of life stories have more chances to provide you with useful stuff. But of course, the priority is to read what you will enjoy most and keep you motivated.

The next step, maybe from N3 to N2 levels, is to read books for Japanese children. Stories for kids in the higher levels of elementary school or for kids in middle school may not be to your taste, but there are easy-to-read versions of great Japanese classics as well. They provide furigana on the kanji and explanations of rare or old words when necessary. I have fond memories of reading Natsume Soseki’s “Botchan and Akiyuki Nosaka’s “Hotaru no Haka” (Grave of the Fireflies) that way.

Upper Levels

From N2 level and above, it may be a good idea to start reading non-fiction related to your passions or in connection with your job or field of work. On top of acquiring useful knowledge, you will get a ton of useful words and expressions you will feel a connection with, and this will be even more handy if you are working in Japan or are planning to. For example, check out Anthony’s article about the book Iwata-san here.

Between N2 and N1 levels is also when you can start reading more complicated fiction. You may want to start with what the Japanese call “light novels,” which is roughly the equivalent of young adult books. The covers are often illustrated manga-style. 

If you are braver, you can start reading modern novels, classics, and poetry. The difficulty varies according to the genre, the period, and the author; and it is always best to get a glimpse at a few pages of the book before buying. If you see that you can read it fairly without having to stop at every sentence because of an unknown word, then it is a good match.

Choose Your Reading Style

Someone taking notes

Once you have picked up one or several good books, it is time to choose how you want to read it. I personally have two main “reading modes”:

  • The “serious study” mode for which I read a few pages, and then look for all the unknown words and kanji. If your book is a paper book, I have found taking pictures with the Google Translation application to be very useful for unknown kanji, even though it is not perfect. As I am a bit old fashioned, I take note of the new things in a good old paper note, but you may want to check more technologically advanced Japanese language learning tools.
  • The “pleasure” mode: I read the book mostly for entertainment, rely on context for most things I do not know, and only check the words and kanji that keep coming back or seem too important to ignore. 

Reading in Japanese can feel very tiring in the beginning, and it is also true each time you start reading something more difficult. However, I have found that, like many other things, by keeping a constant reading practice, it gets easier. By reading a little bit every day, soon enough you will be reading with the same pleasure you would in your native language.

Language study and reading are very personal activities. Your experience and what works for you can be completely different from what works for me. Do not hesitate to share your own tips or favorite books in the comments below!

Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.