How Do You Read Books with Unfamiliar Kanji?

I’m in trouble. I’m trying to make my way through a new book written in Japanese and I’m running into A LOT of unfamiliar kanji in the preface alone.

I have an app on my phone that easily recognizes the kanji for me, but it isn’t a fast process.

Should I just try another book and pick up this one when I know more kanji, or should I just go through the book ignoring the unfamiliar kanji?

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For myself I always called that “archeological reading” - as its own separate thing basically. More of a vocabulary exercise really, where instead of really digging into a story I have to take a fine brush and unearth each (part of a) sentence one. by. one. Way more exhausting and rewarding for a completely different reason.

If I wanted to get an actual sense of flow while reading I’d choose another book. So it depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for. As long as you engage with the language you’re winning though imho :smile:


If it’s a physical paperback, very slowly and with a phone dictionary w/ handwriting input enabled.

If you want to commit to learning via reading and don’t mind an expensive one-off purchase, I can really recommend getting an e-reader - Kindle have dictionaries pre-installed nowadays that will automatically search for any highlighted word and add it to a “Vocabulary Builder” which can be reviewed at any time. It’s completely changed the reading experience from a total slog to an only-partial one.

The only bad thing is that the dictionary that came pre-installed on Kindle is more limited than my free phone dictionary app - I will semi-regularly find that a given word doesn’t have any entry at all, and it’s frustrating when it parses a word incorrectly (i.e. not including okurigana). I don’t know if there are better dictionaries available though.


Sometimes prefaces are in a different style, so I might be tempted to check ahead to the first few pages of the first chapter to confirm that it’s also the same density of unknown kanji.

Other than that, it depends. It’s definitely possible to deal with a certain level of unknowns when reading, but if there are an absolute ton of them, maybe better to put the book aside for now. Some questions to consider:

  • do you know the words when you’ve looked up the unfamiliar kanji, or is this really/also a “lots of unknown vocabulary” problem? (For instance the book I’m currently reading uses 謂う for いう “to say”. I know the word, obviously, but the kanji choice is odd. Once I’d figured that out it was easy to adjust to, though.)
  • are there furigana for the unknown kanji? If you know the underlying words it’s fine to rely on the furigana and not look up every kanji too
  • how often do the words you don’t know seem to be important to the sentence/meaning? Skimming over words that add nuance or flavour but aren’t critical to understanding the plot of the book is often fine

As @shikaji says, you can do this kind of very slow and careful wading through a text, but personally I don’t really recommend it except for something very short like a short story. So I would tend to recommend putting it aside and picking something a bit easier for the moment. (The exception is if there aren’t that many unknown words and the problem is more that you’ve set your standards for ‘how much of the text do I need to understand’ too close to perfection.)

What’s the book, if you don’t mind telling us?


Another strategy is to study the kanjis and vocab prior to reading the book, I haven’t tried it myself but know that many people do it and there are whole websites with decks for many books, maybe someone can provide a link?

2 Likes has decks for a lot of books (though quite heavily weighted to light novels).


Kanji would be nice to study beforehand, to help with guessing vocabularies; but vocabularies are gonna be harsh to some extent, anyway.

A tip I might say, is to supplement with OCR, use a handwriting keyboard, but learn to write radicals well too. There might also be a thing about figuring more usual Kanji forms.


In any language, when I read a book, I often skip the preface. I can always come back to it after reading the regular chapters. But starting reading from the preface is usually a bad idea.


I personally read a lot with unfamiliar kanji. No pre-learning or skipping them. Just find yourself a method that is decently fast at looking words up. Authors tend to have a writing style, which includes the list of kanji they usually use. If you stick to a book/series long enough, you’ll see a good majority of them and over time this issue will disappear.

Except if you are reading Kaguya-sama. I’m pretty sure that has an insane amount of kanji on purpose


There’s books without unfamiliar kanji?

In all seriousness, this is a large part of beginning to read in Japanese that will require a lot of effort at first but it will slowly but surely become easier with time. But I’ve never read a book with no look ups. Theres almost always something new to learn with every book you pick up.


reading books with unfamiliar Kanji can be challenging but not impossible. By using a Kanji dictionary, furigana, and context clues, one can effectively read and understand Japanese text even if they are not familiar with all of the Kanji characters used.

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For print books, I’ll look up unknown kanji by quickly drawing them on the IME pad. That’s the fastest method I’ve found for looking up unknown kanji on the fly. Your mileage may vary if you aren’t good with stroke order, though (I got a good sense for it by practicing writing kanji).

For digital text, if you can get an ebook into epub form, you can use this ebook reader to use Yomichan or another popup dictionary on the text.

For digital manga, you can use Mokuro to parse the text and allow you to use Yomichan and other tools on it. It’s not perfect, but does a pretty good job with manga generally.

There is also Game2Text, which can help with video games or other digital text that cannot be copied and pasted, though it does make mistakes.

If the digital tools don’t work on what you’re reading, or you only have a print book and there are too many unknowns, you might be better off setting it aside for now and picking up something with furigana (or something that you can use the above tools on).


I find when authors or other authors write a piece before/after, it’s harder to parse than the body itself. I’ve added below my own process and experience with reading books in Japanese.

Before reading you should do a quick scan for a few pages. If there’s a lot of kanji you don’t know (like more than a third) that’s a good indication it will be tough to get a flow going, so you might need to read something easier or study up with jpdb before you attempt to actually read it. If you do think it’s something you can manage over a longer term, then it’s time to set some goals. How long do you want to spend on this book. Then break that up into smaller periods. When you start reading you will commit yourself to reading for a certain time, or certain amount of pages or till you hit a new chapter. It’s not set in stone, readjust based on your reading sessions.

During reading if you don’t know a word/verb/kanji take a good guess based on the context. And you might have to read a bit further to see your guess confirmed. Looking up is something you can always do (during or after). Try to read you goal for this session.

After reading is reflection time. After each session, evaluate how your experience was. You can think of difficulty, writingstyle, grammar, wordchoice, or simply what you think about the story and the characters in it. Did you manage your goal(s)? Then look ahead to what is coming and based on how it went adjust. When you’ve finished the book, pat yourself on the back and give yourself some time to gather your thoughts before you move on to the next book.

Some additional tips/tricks/thoughts: the beginning will always be a bit tougher and that feeling will stay for a while. Reading regularly and consistently helps, at least once a week and ideally every day. Pick something that you want to read and is not too difficult. For the first time ever reading a book in Japanese, pick something slightly easier than you’re used to so you get accustomed to reading a book and building your own healthy reading habits.

I hope this to use to anyone. If not, it at least helped me for when I pick up a book again, because some time has passed since the last one lol.

6 Likes is fantastic for this stuff, it allows you to prelearn the books / vns etc you want to read. even if they dont have whatever you want, you can just add it yourself. invaluable resource

The book I’m reading is actually “Talking About Japan-Q&A.” I got it from the library because it was one of the only few books in Japanese. It’s from the mid-90’s and there’s not much furigana in there.

I think for now I’m going to put this one down and maybe find some manga to read on

Thank you for all your help and answers!

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Ah, right. Well, it probably helps that it has parallel texts and that any particular section is likely not too long, but on the other hand that kind of book often jumps from subject to subject so you have a lot of new subject-specific vocab turning up for each new section. So there’s likely to be some books that are easier places to start than there.