How long until you became a competent reader?

This is a bit of a loaded question I think, but how long until you felt you were able to read and comprehend most modern Japanese (newspapers, books, general internet etc but maybe not medical journals or classic texts) without aid? I’m sure there will always be new words to learn, and one’s progress depends on how much time they put in, but I am curious about your journey.

It hasn’t been a year since I started daily immersion reading, and I want to be realistic about what to expect. Is it as simple as “learning” X number of vocabulary words? Or maybe it takes a certain amount of practice to achieve sufficient reading comprehension?


I’ll tell you once I get there :grimacing:

Seriously though, it depends on how you define competent. Practice can make a huge difference though. I recently binge-read やがて君になる and at first I was missing pretty basic grammatical constructs, whereas 8 volumes later (which was about 3 weeks, all in all) I could very comfortably read it with nothing but a dictionary to figure out the words I didn’t know.

It’s not as simple as learning a certain number of vocabulary words, you have to be familiar with grammar and the “Japanese way” of wording things as well, but reading is honestly the best way to do that, and you’ll grow quicker than you expect.


I think the “without aid” part is gonna be a bit of a loaded term here - in that I think I’m a decently competent reader, and if for some reason I had to fill in a form that said “can you read Japanese? y/n” I would probably fill in the bubble next to y.

But that said, my dictionary app of choice is never very far from my hand. I could probably get by okay without it in many if not most reading contexts, but I don’t choose to, since I can and do comfortably read anything I want to now using my preferred process that includes a dictionary.

I don’t really want to give exact numbers since I don’t think it’s something to benchmark, but I would say for me the “I can read whatever I want and it’s fun, not work, and it feels almost like reading English, and although I still have the crutch of a dictionary and anki it doesn’t feel like a crutch anymore it feels like a leg” point was the range of ~ a few years (from absolute zero).

And I would project into the future the point for me to be at “a native-like swathe of vocabulary, barely any caveats remaining” to be ~several years (if ever). There’s a whoooole lotta words in a language and you never really know what’s going to come up (saw the Japanese word for “islets of langerhans” in a manga the other day, for one). And where in English I’m well-read enough to just brush past a word I don’t really know vaguely assuming I get the general idea (do I know what “brocade” means, ehhhh…? maybe? I know the word and the vibe even if I’d struggle putting it into words and might be wrong if I did), with Japanese I still feel in a precarious enough position that I’m greedy to forge that confidence where I can get it, which is where dictionaries and anki come in. (if that makes sense).

The basic competency might be there, but the confidence lags behind, to one extent or another, and I imagine that takes a very long time to bleed in. And I guess what I mean is that “aid” may include help for confidence, not just competency.

I’m sure it also depends on what you read (I want to read many things) or what you do (I don’t talk to anybody in Japanese) and how consistent it is (I’ve been lucky to maintain a steady clip after starting) and what kind of process you like (I don’t mind a dictionary) though!

I guess at the end of the day what I mean is for me the “I can definitely read anything, and quickly enough to be practical and fun if I put my mind to it to boot” point happened surprisingly quickly (i.e. after a few years) (and felt like a palpable breakthrough - like I noticed it happen). But the “I can definitely read anything period, it’s not even a question” point remains well in the future.

I think you’re probably talking about that first, “can definitely read anything quickly enough to be practical” milestone? And for me I think it took a certain amount of practice, both in reading of course, but also practice in the process I like. At some point I stopped having to rip apart sentences to figure out how they were constructed and could see immediately which words were new to me in a sentence, and I could just throw them on the pile with all the other new words to learn.
At some point once you get enough used to how you read, the base sentence structures are absorbed and the pain points are more like the raisin in the muffin than the muffin itself, so to speak. And then you just get really really used to eating those raisins, I guess (I’ll accept the Metaphor of the Year award in the mail, thank you). I think it’s just practice to get there, not really dependent on a certain batch of vocab.

Does that help? Really not sure if I described any of that clearly… (except the raisins thing that was definitely clear)


If “without aid” means without a dictionary, then I’m still not there after nearly six years. But I can read books with varying amounts of dictionary lookups (depending on the series) without much issue. I also recently spent a lot of time on Wikipedia reading about math terms I was familiar with in English, and that was pretty easy too.

So I’d say it took me about 4.5-5 years to start to feel comfortable readings things more complicated than manga, and I’ve improved a lot more over the last year. But even that’s a work in progress. I do need to reduce dictionary use more, and it still takes me about three weeks to read a 350 page book. A simple comparison to a book I recently read in English tells me I read at least three times slower in Japanese than in English (could be even slower with harder Japanese books). I would like to get that improved further.

* Times mentioned in this post are how long since I started learning Japanese.


I suppose to say “without aid, full stop” is a bit strict. “Can definitely read anything quickly enough to be practical”, is more in the spirit of what I’m thinking. To feel that for most things you can read at a steady (although slower than native) tempo, understanding well what you’re reading as you go without dissecting every sentence, and even if you encounter The Unknown, it usually isn’t enough to stop you. I hate to use the JLPT as a metric, but I’d think (possibly wrongly) that you’d have no problem with the N1 exam (listening aside). If someone asked if you could read Japanese, you could reply “yes” without reservation. Certainly more raisins than muffin.


Well, the issue is what you describe as “most”. Some people will have a higher bar for most than others. I’ll go into as much detail as possible and you can decide what fits best for you.

4-5 Years of dedicated study @4 hours a day ish on average ~6000 hours of study, ~20000 words srsed, probably about 7,000,000 characters worth of reading:

  • Anime within a familiar genre: 0-1 new words per episode on average.

  • Anime outside of a familiar genre: 2-10 new words per episode on average.

  • Manga within a familiar genre: 0-2 new words per volume on average

  • Manga outside of a familiar genre: Haven’t tried, dont know.

  • Light novel/novel within a familiar genre: 20-60 new words usually

  • Light novel/novel outside of a familar genre: 150-300 new words

3 years of study, ~4500 hours, ~14000 words srsed sub 3,000,000 characters read

  • Anime within a familiar genre: 10+ new words per episode on average (I think).

  • Anime outside of a familiar genre: Don’t know, didn’t try at that point.

  • Manga within a familiar genre: 5-15 new words per volume on average

  • Manga outside of a familiar genre: Haven’t tried, dont know.

  • Light novel/novel within a familiar genre: 200+ new words usually

  • Light novel/novel outside of a familiar genre: Didn’t try one at this point iirc.

Now personally, I think that I still have a lot to go. I’ve been vocal about my goals before on this site, but I plan to take my reading ability as far as they’ll go and am very self critical as a result. With that being said I know the past me who set out learning japanese to read books would be satisfied. Its worth noting that just because I don’t know a word, doesn’t mean I can’t get it from context. Sometimes a word is even literally defined in text. Not knowing 50 words in a book may mean I was actually only stumped on 5 of them. So from a reading for fun standpoint, thats fine because I always know whats happening without a dictionary. From a personal standpoint, not knowing a word is a failure and it goes straight into the srs deck lol. It just depends on you personally.

If you ask me, my current position is what I would call competent in familiar genres with ~6000 hours of study, ~20000 words srsed, probably about 7,000,000 characters worth of reading. For other genres, I wouldn’t call myself competent and am working on that. Not knowing 150+ words in a book is just way too much for me, but thats just my own personal opinion. I’d say within a years time (1500 more hours and maybe 50+ more books) I’ll be able to achieve competency across most areas I care about, but thats just a prediction and nothing more.


As someone who is also their own harshest critic, I can understand setting a high bar for yourself, even though you would probably impress your past self (interesting how that works, isn’t it?) Right now, Option 2 sounds impressive to me. But who knows what I would think of myself if I theoretically achieved that.

Reading is without a doubt a means to an end for me. My goal is to be competent enough to experience working in Japan in my field of work. So I need to be competent in the genres of everyday life, business, and the technical aspects of my job. I suppose I’ll know I’ve gotten there if I get the job and am not fired for being illiterate.

I’m two years in since I started from zero. It seems likely that I have at least another couple years to go before I might get to a point that I’m happy with, judging from your experience.


Yeah, thats where we’re different. I don’t really know when the switch happened, but before I knew it I wasn’t learning to be able to read and was just learning because I liked learning. So in my case, reading is the means and learning is the end :upside_down_face:

Yeah, its both a blessing and a curse. Its important to focus on what you don’t know rather than what you do know so you don’t become complacent, but mah.

Best of luck with your studies man. Enjoy the journey and the time honestly flies.


I can talk only about my experience with English and french + relate to my friend who studied Japanese and passed n1. Iv started considering myself being fluent in eng/fr around 12k words mark. Unironically these numbers correlate heavily with my friend’s experience in Japanese. He’s around 13k now and very rarely he encounters new words in anime.
By fluency, we mean 98%+ comprehension in movies/animes, Youtube videos, news articles.
and around 95%+ in novels. Novels language is very different from other medias because of plethora descriptive words that are never used anywhere except written language.

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