In honour of the shiny (now not-so-new) Reading category in the forums, this thread is intended to be a place to bring together resources and advice for helping people to get started with reading.
If you know of any great tips or resources, please share them! You can also let me know if anything needs updating, like if any of the links go out of date for example.
General Reading Advice and Support Tools
Where to Start
Reading native Japanese content is simply hard, and you’re gonna have to prepare yourself to look up a lot of stuff if you plunge straight in - sorry!
You might be tempted to go for young children’s books thinking that they’re easier, but in fact although the vocabulary may be simpler, the grammar might not be much more accessible. In Japanese, they also tend to be very light on kanji, which can actually make it more difficult for a foreign learner (especially a WK user!) to parse the text.
On top of this there can be issues such as lots of onomatopoeia, strange kid logic which is hard to follow or ‘corrupted’ speech - like a cat that mixes ‘nyan’ in with its words, for example.
That said, they often feature a lot of repetition, which can be very helpful for consolidating new vocabulary or sentence patterns, the ideas and vocabulary are indeed usually quite simple and easy to follow, and they are nearly always illustrated, which can help hugely with providing context to aid your understanding.
Graded Readers (see below) can also be a fantastic starting point. Designed with foreign learners in mind, they start very easy and feature simple grammar that builds as you progress through the levels as well as a good amount of repetition, without many of the disadvantages that children’s books can bring.
One advantage of Japanese for foreign learners is that manga are huge in Japan. Even if you’re not ordinarily into comics or graphic novels, the level of support that illustrations bring to the reading experience really can’t be overstated. Furthermore, the text is much more broken up than in a book, which makes it less intimidating and easier to keep your place.
They’re a great next step after tackling Graded Readers, bilingual books, etc.
If you are interested in reading manga in digital format, two options you might want to look at are Ebook Japan and Book Walker. See ‘Buying Books’ for more details, but in particular note that both often have free manga available, either to purchase or to read for a limited time.
You might want to check out the Book Clubs (see below) to see which manga they’ve tackled or nominated in the past for some ideas. If you pick one which has been read you’ll benefit from grammar discussions in the threads and vocabulary lists.
Aoi Tori publish books for older children. These will be hard for someone just starting to read, but they’re going to be the easiest source of “real books” once you get to that stage.
Most of their books have one or more sequels, which can really make your reading practice more efficient. There is a huge decrease in the number of new words you encounter as you progress through a series, and once you’re used to an author’s writing style your speed will really pick up. You’re likely to get some repeat exposure of particular words and sentence patterns.
FloFlo (see below) has a number of Aoi Tori books; you might want to pick one of these so that you can utilise FloFlo to help with the vocabulary. The All Titles page can be sorted by medium and number of unique words to help you find something suitable (hover over a title to see the cover and look for the blue Aoi Tori style).
Some suggestions include Porepore Nikki, Kiri no Mukou no Fushigi na Machi, Fushigi Koshoten and Tokimeki Toshokan.
Something you know
Reading something that you already know can be a great approach; perhaps you’ve seen the anime or read it in your native language. Either way, you’ll have a lot more context to work from and a resource you can turn to if you get really stuck, so it’s likely to be a much less frustrating experience. Bear in mind the difficulty though: you might know Harry Potter off by heart, but it is not easy!
Other ideas outlined in more detail below include NHK News Easy, Satori Reader, bilingual books, and reading other material such as in-game text or song lyrics.
Buying Japanese books
There’s a lot of great advice on buying JP books and ebooks, with links, in the OP of the Beginner Book Club under ‘Where to purchase the books’.
As well as Amazon.co.jp (where you can sometimes buy cheap used books!), CDJapan can be worth investigating when purchasing, as they have economy shipping options available.
Don’t forget that there may be a Japanese bookstore nearby, especially if you live in a big city! Try searching on the internet to see whether that’s the case, as that could be much cheaper and easier. Consider selling on your materials after you’re finished with them as well; buyers in your country will appreciate not having to pay exorbitant shipping fees.
Ebook Japan is a website / app for purchasing digital manga, with no regional restrictions. It’s aimed at Japanese people and is therefore entirely in Japanese, but there’s a great JapaneseAmmo article which guides you through how to use the site. The site also puts (sometimes multiple) volumes of a series up for free for a limited time, so you can try things out without committing to a purchase, and the time limit may prove motivational
Another option for ebooks is Book Walker. One advantage of Book Walker is that many series accept paypal instead of a credit card, and they have frequent campaigns and sales. They also have free digital manga available; the 0円 options allow you to purchase them for free, whereas the 無料 options are available to read for free for a limited time.
If you’re happy to read things in a digital format, this is likely to save you a lot of money in postage, as most physical items will be sourced from Japan.
If you’re reading a physical book which doesn’t have furigana, there are various ways you can look up kanji. Some options include:
- Drawing the kanji via various phone apps, such as Midori (paid) or Shirabe Jisho (free) on iOS. Some apps may work better than others and some will only work if you use the correct stroke order.
- Drawing the kanji by mouse (for the dinosaurs amongst us) with this website.
- Looking up the kanji by part via various phone apps and also via Jisho.
- Using the SKIP system of kanji lookup in e.g. Jisho “#kanji #skip:1-2-3”
- Using Google Translate’s camera functionality to look up the reading of a word. (Just don’t rely on the translation!)
- Yomiwa, a dictionary app that also lets you take pictures and search the dictionary with your phone’s or tablet’s camera.
- Guessing a kanji’s reading, possible in some cases if you learn about phonetic components.
For looking up kanji in your web browser there are various extensions that you can utilise, including yomichan. If you know some other good ones add them in!
Created by our very own Raionus, FloFlo is a developing website designed to help you with reading. You can select any of the books on the site (more being added all the time, including some free-to-read!) to get a vocabulary list ordered as they appear in the book, and use this to load up your SRS lessons with new words to learn.
The list can be filtered by frequency, so you can pre-learn those words which appear many times in the book to make your reading experience smoother, or just have the list to hand as you read to get definitions for all words, and only bother learning those which will come up again.
The website remembers which words you’ve already learnt across lists, and you can sync it up with your WK account to filter out words you know here, as well as upload lists of vocabulary you know.
Raionus also wrote a short article discussing the best places for beginners to start reading ‘real’ books.
There are several book clubs here on the forums. Reading along with a book club can provide a great source of motivation, and lots of willing people able to help you out with questions, enabling you to tackle harder content.
Most of them have community vocabulary lists, so even if you’re reading along after the book club has moved on they’re a great resource (and people will probably still be around if you have any questions not already answered in the thread!). Plus they can be a good place to look for book ideas.
Ongoing book clubs at the moment include:
- なぜ？どうして - reading a series of books about the world, written for schoolkids (~N5)
- Yotsubato Book Club - reading よつばと, the quintessential Japanese beginners’ manga
- Aria Book Club - reading the Aria manga series (~N4)
- Beginners Book Club - for those new to reading native content rather than to learning Japanese (~N4)
- Intermediate Book Club - tackles harder content than the Beginners Book Club (~N3)
There are already several others reading specific texts as well, if you’re looking for something within your interests!
Sources of Reading Material
Bilingual books can be a great way of reading native content while still having a lot of support. Depending on the book you choose, the foreign translation may be quite closely tied to the Japanese text, making it easier to compare, or more separate, making it easier to avoid accidentally ‘cheating’.
Tuttle publish quite a number of bilingual children’s books (not all books at link bilingual!), including easier individual stories where the text is closely linked, or story collections where the parallel text is more separated.
If you’re at a higher level of Japanese, you could consider books such as this Penguin Short Story Collection. The Japanese text is vertical and sits opposite the English on each pair of pages, and it gives you the furigana for each kanji only the first time you see it.
Another option for more intermediate learners are the Read Real Japanese books (link to glowing Tofugu review). These provide glosses and notes on the translation process rather than full translations. Kyasurin has also provided some page sample photos.
Graded Readers can be a great way to build your confidence and give you some experience before you start tackling native content.
The ethos behind them is that you should be reading material that’s pretty easy for you; that way you’ll read lots, enjoy the experience, and want to read even more. If you’ve picked the right level you may not know the occasional word, but you should be able to infer the meaning without looking it up, from the context and the illustrations.
They can be a bit pricey as they’re designed as a learning resource for foreign learners, which is a definite disadvantage. Some of them come with an audio book though, for bonus listening practise and shadowing.
Some popular series include:
White Rabbit Press - these are ebooks purchased in-app
Japanese Reader Collection by Clay and Yumi - these include two audio speeds, and grammar and vocabulary breakdowns
Let’s Read Japanese (no audio)
A Japanese Reader - actually a single book covering an absurdly huge range of difficulty over 75 ‘lessons’ from absolute beginner through advanced texts on more niche topics
The Tadoku site also provides a list of suggested native titles you should be able to tackle if you can manage X level in their Graded Reader series.
There is also a huge selection of 10分で読める books, which are actually aimed at Japanese children and graded according to the Japanese school system, but apparently quite manageable for foreign learners. The higher the grade, the more kanji will be utilised (see the WK Stats site for an idea of how your WK level matches up). Links are to the first grade in each series, on CDJapan:
- 10分で読めるお話 (6 grades)
- 10分で読める物語 (6 grades)
- 10分で読める名作 (6 grades) - famous stories / classics
- 10分で読める伝記 (6 grades) - biographies
- 10分で読めるこわい話 - (2 grades) scary stories
- 10分で読めるわらい話 - (2 grades) funny stories
Basically, search for 10分で読める and prepare to be overwhelmed by choice. This blog post outlines the pros and cons of this type of book and provides even more suggestions.
Satori Reader is an online collection of articles and stories in Japanese. It’s a subscription service but there are a decent number of articles available free, so you can try it out extensively without paying.
You can filter how it displays kanji and furigana depending on all sorts of factors, including your WK level, and hover over literally anything to get more information. Definitions and translations are written especially, so rather than getting a generic dictionary definition you get something tailored for the specific context. Every article is also recorded, for bonus listening practice.
It has an integrated SRS for learning new words you come across, but this is poorly executed imo (you flip the card and self-assess rather than inputting and will see EN>JP in the same session as JP>EN) so I personally wouldn’t bother
NHK News Easy & TangoRisto
Another online option, or for those who like to read news, is NHK News Easy. This website provides articles from NHK News rewritten with simpler language.
To complement this is an app called TangoRisto which pulls the articles from NHK News Easy and makes them even easier to read by providing furigana if desired / on-click, and English definitions on-click. Articles can be sorted by difficulty and the vocabulary pulled out for you to study separately.
TangoRisto now also pulls articles from NHK News, for more advanced learners, Matcha Japan Travel Magazine, and folk tales from hukumusume. Both NHK News Easy and TangoRisto are free, though you can donate to TangoRisto if you want to support the developer.
Free Online Resources - PIBO & Aozora Bunko
For iOS users, PIBO is a free app featuring over 360 children’s stories. You can read three stories per day for free, or pay to access more (but that seems like plenty!). As children’s stories, they feature basically no kanji, which can actually make it more tricky for a foreign learner to read, and are definitely for beginners.
However, there are excellent audio recordings of all the stories, so you can also get free listening / shadowing practice with text you can follow along with. In addition, the stories are varied and interesting, and the illustrations are not only cute but will also aid your comprehension. Definitely worth checking out.
Aozora Bunko is a Japanese digital library encompassing thousands of works, including many which are out of copyright or which the authors wanted to make freely available. A few of the free works available there have been added to FloFlo (above), which might give you somewhere to start. Otherwise, the Read Your Grade website helps with navigating the collection by making an attempt to organise it by difficulty, in English.
In addition, Satori Reader (above) has free trial content available and NHK News Easy (above) is free, as is the companion app TangoRisto which pulls from other sources as well as just news. See also ‘Other Reading Ideas’.
As mentioned, e-books (see ‘Buying Books’) are likely to save you from shipping fees, or you might be able to recoup some costs by selling on physical items.
Other Reading Ideas
Games in Japanese
If you like video games, why not try playing one in Japanese? If you pick a game without too much text (especially if that text isn’t game-critical) or niche vocabulary, that you know well already, it can be a good way to get some easy reading practice in. You might also learn useful words like ‘menu’ and ‘save’ which will make it easier to move onto more text-dense games.
One suggestion to get you started is Stardew Valley, which can be easily switched to Japanese text in-game. You’ll learn quite a bit of farm-related vocabulary, but overall the conversations are simple, often repetitive, and realistic. The font is also ‘handwritten’, which can be good exposure. Finally, it comes recommended by Tofugu!
Japanese Let’s Play videos can be another supplementary source of reading practice, particularly if you find games with lots of dialogue. If the player tends to read this out loud you can also listen / shadow, and pick up the readings of unknown kanji.
Quora is another possible source of reading available online, more suitable for those of intermediate+ level: see this post by jprspereira for some guidance on using it for reading practice.
Other ideas include watching Japanese music videos with lyrics on-screen, and reading visual novels.
Anything I’ve missed?
Thoughts on furigana?
Would you tackle something easy or something you’re inherently interested in?
Are you able to give a comparison between the different graded reader sets available?
Do you actually recommend reading Amazon reviews?