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Reading in Japanese: How to Boost Motivation and Increase Literacy

As much as I emphasize the importance of using flash cards to learn Japanese, by the time you achieve an intermediate level of literacy you’ll want to start reading native material. Transitioning from textbook reading exercises to the same books, magazines, and manga that native Japanese people read is intimidating. Selecting reading material that’s too easy, too difficult, or simply uninteresting can break your motivation and generate feelings of self-doubt. You also have to constantly manage your willpower, forcing yourself to engage with Japanese prose without running to an English translation at the first sign of struggle.  

The Temptation of Translated Content

For your first foray into the wide world of native Japanese reading material, you may be tempted to start reading news articles and manga that have readily available English translations. However, if you’re reading something that’s amusing or practical, there’s an overwhelming temptation to simply give up and read the English version to instantly acquire the knowledge or entertainment that you crave.

I constantly fought this urge while reading through Iwata-san, as I own both the English and Japanese editions of the book. The content was so fascinating that I repeatedly abandoned my slog through the Japanese version of the book and simply read ahead in the English version to gleefully absorb all the pearls of wisdom within. Now, I’m facing similar temptation with The Gifted Gene and My Lovable Memes, which is also now available in English.

Cutting Your Lifeline

Over the years, to combat this kind of temptation, I’ve become more selective about the Japanese content I read for the purpose of improving my literacy. Assuming that reading interesting, level-appropriate content is a given, I’ve found that I’m most engaged and motivated when reading magazines, books, or news articles that meet the following criteria:

  • Relevancy—the book, magazine, or article specifically relates to my hobbies, interest, and presence in Japan.
  • Exclusivity—the material I’m reading has no available English translation.

Reading content that meets these conditions removes any immediate English lifeline and forces me to grapple with all manner of kanji and grammar. There’s no shortcut—no running to a perfectly translated English edition at the first sign of struggle, frustration, or boredom. Sure, the temptation to use translation tools and software remains. However, these tools are imperfect, and that too, keeps me engaged with the original Japanese text, comparing software output with my own interpretation.

A Practical Example

Three Japanese books lay on a wooden table. On the left, a world car guide called "Skyline" has a cover showing an elegant grey car. In the middle, the book with the highest format has a cover showing a cycler behind whom we can see trees and magnificent mountains. The title is "The best 100 cycling spots in Japan." The last book on the right has white cover with text only, in English and Japanese, that says "Corporate Accelerator."

Reading material that is exclusive and relevant to my life in Japan.

So, what does this practice look like in reality? Take one of my favorite hobbies, cycling, for example. From Japan-exclusive bikes and gear to the countless routes, shops, and experiences that are only available here, cycling magazines and online articles are a goldmine for engaging reading material. The only way for me to obtain the latest and greatest information about cycling in Japan is to read Japan-exclusive content produced on the topic. Magazines like Cycle Sports only exist here, and there’s no English edition to retreat to when I’m struggling with the material. As you can see, this magazine meets the aforementioned criteria: it’s both relevant and exclusive to Japan. If I want the information within, I have to make an effort to translate it myself. This simple framework does wonders for motivation and willpower.

If you’re fighting your own battles with willpower and motivation, consider relevancy and exclusivity when you choose what to read in Japanese. The simple framework described in this article will have an outsized impact on your efforts to consume native reading material, which will help you improve your literacy faster than you ever imagined.

Originally from California, I've been living and working in Japan, now my second home, since 2009. My work as a communications consultant lends a unique perspective to my writing, and I often explore the business behind Japan’s beauty. When I’m not working, you can find me hunched over a screen reviewing kanji flashcards in my never-ending quest to master the Japanese language.