Studying through Japanese books (not textbooks)?

Hello all, as you already knew, one of the methods to study a language is through books (any genre except for textbooks). And Japanese is no exception. My question is have you ever tried this and if it is the case, how do you do it? I read an article on nihongoshark about this (here is the link if anyone need it: How to Learn Japanese Through Reading: A Survival Guide) and the author showed it in a very detailed walkthrough. However, I’d love to hear more from you, who really tried this and made progress from this.
I’m in no rush studying this way as long as what you’ve done really works for yourself, so just throw at me whatever you have, lol.
I really appreciate it!!

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That’s about right. I read a lot of ero manga… for the plot. Doing most of what the article says.

These days, I just read for fun rather than study.
Back when I was N4~N3, it did require a lot of efforts. I immediately went for mangas that I found enjoyable, including one (Working) that had basically no furigana.
I had to look up every kanji individually before I could look up the words themselves.
It was a great motivation to remember readings as fast as possible :stuck_out_tongue:

I think reading helped me a lot, at the time. I’d recommend going for that as soon as you can…


Whether or not this works for you depends on what kind of time limit you have and what kind of proficiency you hope to achieve. I don’t think you’ll ever be able to read, say, light novels using this method. At least not in a timely (or accurate) manner.

Can’t say there’s anyone out there in any walk of life who’d disagree with you, but sometimes you put in the hours anyway.

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Reading has been my primary form of studying Japanese for 4 years now, and now I’m a full-time Japanese-English translator where I read all day. It was a long road of successes and mistakes, but I’ll share with you my study methods, keeping in mind that no two people learn exactly the same.

Basically, there are two different kinds of reading for language study: intensive reading and extensive reading. Intensive is making sure that you understand every single word and phrase, looking up everything you don’t know. Extensive is simply reading a lot, only looking up words that are reoccurring and hindering your overall understanding. As a rule, I exclusively do intensive reading. This is because I’m the kind of person who hates not knowing things, and because you never know when that word you glossed over could pop up again. Both methods have their merits, though.

1. Reading Classical Japanese with the Modern Japanese beside it

I studied classical Japanese my last semester of uni. I had to read and translate 方丈記 into modern English. My resources were the classical Japanese version, modern Japanese version, and English version to check my translations at the end. I printed out the classical version double-spaced, wrote furigana above characters and English translation of each sentence beneath the Japanese, along with keeping a notebook full of the new words and kanji, and a section for defunct kanji and their contemporary forms. It was a slog, but I’m proud to say that I managed to finish the book in one semester. I would say that this method/material is only for Japanese learners who have a true passion for linguistics.

  • Pros: You will learn lots of older words that you would never learn elsewhere (comes in handy if you like samurai films and whatnot, and also because some classical structures can be seen in modern formal Japanese. It gave me a more well-rounded understanding of Japanese.
  • Cons: Your life will be consumed by it and progress is very slow.

2 Reading Japanese novellas (with no English version)

I made the terrible mistake of choosing to read one of Haruki Murakami’s short stories for another semester of independent study at uni. This was before I had discovered WaniKani and I had a barely functioning knowledge of kanji. It took me 6 months to push through the entire ~200 pages, and the ending sucked. All of this labor, for nothing. This endeavor was a failure because I failed to choose a material that matched my abilities, and because I turned out not to like the actual contents of it either.

  • Pros: I learned a lot of new vocabulary.
  • Cons: I was constantly frustrated and discouraged by the difficulty.

3 Reading Japanese manga (with no English)

In general, I don’t like to rely on an English version. I view it as a crutch that hinders me from truly comprehending and thinking in Japanese. I have read quite a few mangas up until now, some of which I’ve gotten a lot out of, and others I gave up on. When picking a manga to read, make sure that it is:

  1. interesting
  2. not so difficult that it feels more like a chore than fun
  3. actually beneficial to your studies (I read all of Ranma 1/2, and while it made me laugh and I liked the story, it was linguistically very simple and I didn’t learn many new words from it.)

When there is a word I don’t know, I immediately look it up using Akebi, the Japanese English dictionary for Android. I add it to a list I have going for the manga series. Then, I write down the word in a paper notebook dedicated to vocab. Lastly, when I have either finished the series or I have a sizeable chunk of words looked up, I create a memrise course of all of the vocab words I looked up, with audio as well. This helps to make sure that these words don’t become something I write down once and forget.

Currently, I am reading Rurouni Kenshin (which truth be told is actually above my level of comprehension, but I love it so much that I don’t mind the extra time spent looking words up), Mushishi (the stories are really interesting and the language is beautiful), and Saint Oniisan (also difficult but so funny I don’t mind).

  • Pros: I can read what I like, and manga chapters are short enough you can feel some sort of accomplishment soon.
  • Cons: If the material is difficult, it can take a very long time to get through it.

4 Reading short-short stories in Japanese (with no English)

There is an author named Hoshi Shinichi who wrote ショートショート短編. (short-short short stories haha). He wrote hundreds of them, all of topics varying from sci fi, fantasy, and fiction. Each story is anywhere from 3-15 pages (6 or 7 is probably the average), and each one has a cool twist at the end. I cannot recommend his short stories as a study material more!! I found out about them after having forced myself through the hell of Murakami Haruki, and it was thanks to them that I realized I didn’t hate reading in Japanese-- I just hated Murakami. My study method is the same as my above for manga. I try to read one or two of his short stories a week.

Pros: You can finish a short story in 30 minutes even when looking up lots of words, a quick sense of accomplishment, exposure to a wide variety of vocab you wouldn’t get from one manga series/book alone, fun read
Cons: …The stories are too short? haha


What do you estimate your vocab count to be at? 5k? 10k? 15k? Asking for a friend.

The test I just took said about 12,000.

But I think it’s difficult to measure vocabulary comprehension in Japanese. There are often two-kanji words that I have never seen before, but because I know each kanji I therefore know the word.

Also, I’m a translator for a computer software company, so many of the things I translate are in katakana. :stuck_out_tongue: I don’t translate novels or anything intense like that.


Thank you all for your replies and advices. I really appreciate them :relaxed:

Thanks!!! Great recommendations.
I’ve been reading White Rabbit Graded Readers for some time. Finishing Level 2 now. I was planning to finish all levels (4) and strive for some 少年 oriented novel or stories.

Would you happen to know if there would be much of a gap from graded readers and the short stories you recommended ?

Sorry my reply is months late. I’m a bad person. I’ve never used the graded readers. I can tell you that the short stories by Hoshi Shinichi are made for native speaker middle school students.

You will find that some of them will be more difficult than others, because some short stories deal with scientists and their experiments, while others are just stories of everyday people.

I first started reading these short stories in my 4th year of Japanese study at uni. Hope this helps!

I’ve got myself to try and read some of the other books from the same author, and it’s a bit ahead my current level, though I’m still considering those stories for the next stage, as the short tale format it’s really appealing.

For now I’m reading the 10分で読める伝記 series that goes from a 1st grade level to a 6th grade level. The 10’ idea and the fact that they are biographies has been a nice way to keep myself interested in the stories.

I have a kid’s chapter book called 緑の森の物語 that I plan to read through once I finish cleaning my room (I might enjoy the story so I think it’s better to do the not fun stuff first lol)

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The 10 minute stories are a great idea! The fact that they’re leveled is also very nice. When you’re finished with those and ready for the next step, definitely try for Hoshi Shinichi!

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Again, thank you the recommended titles, especially the 10分で読める伝記 and Hoshi Shinichi. I’ve lost my passion for Japanese in the recent months but now it’s back again so I’ll try as much as possible.
Currently, I’m reading 新参者 of 東野圭吾. I know it’s not an easy read but after the first few page (and one or two times re-read it :sweat_smile:) I think I can understand it, about 80%. And also, 推理小説 is my favorite genre so even if it’s hard, it doesn’t bother me at all.

Do you all mind sharing me your methods? Like do you write down new words in a notebook, highlight the new grammars in the book…?
Furthermore, are you living in Japan? If not, how do you buy Japanese book in your country? (because it’s hard to get a hand on that thing here).

I started with Graded Readers (for japanese learners), and while reading those I occasionally looked into some native content to see if I was ready for it. When I got to the point I was able to get 90-100% of those (at least for level 3; there is one level more in that series) I realized that the books aimed for kids in the 6-8 years old range were ok for me to read as well (again, aiming for a 90-100% understanding )

So my routine now:
I try to read a story every 2-3 days. so far those 10’ stories take me about 40-50 minutes actually, since there’re words and pieces of grammar that I’m looking after finishing with every page; I then add those to Anki as I go along (or save to add later if I only have my phone with me) and read the sentences with the new concepts again.

for every page I found about 2-3 new word or grammar points, so I don’t feel I stop too much, and sometimes I can guess the words for the context too, so I only look to confirm any doubts.
If after looking for the word I realize it’s a very specific word (scientific words for example), I wont add it if I don’t see it again in another story.

For new grammar, I usually look with more time after I’m done with the story using the Handbook for Japanese Grammar patterns (a most recommended resource):ok_hand:

For me the major improvement has been the fact that the stories are short and allow me to have a good review session the same day with the new words and grammar included.

I’m thinking in finishing the whole series before get my hands into a novel.


How can you be a translator but still having trouble with reading manga (rurouni kenshin)?

Sorry this sounded very snarky, but I’m genuinely curious…

No, not snarky at all. It’s a reasonable question!

The difference is in the content. Basically, I work for a large American company that provides call center support to many famous corporations and businesses world-wide. I work specifically on a project in Japan that provides a call center to Japanese users of a big anti-virus software company.

My main duty is to take the weekly, monthly, and quarterly reports about the call center (how many calls were received, what trending issues there were, customer satisfaction details) and translate them from Japanese to English.

On top of that, if there is a product update, I translate the explanation materials from English to Japanese so the call agents can study up. If a technical issue has to be escalated, I have to mediate the conversations between our Japanese agents and the English-only escalations teams. I send daily attendance information to a team in India. Also, if there are any English-speaking guests visiting our site, I become their interpreter for the day. I also occasionally translate emails dealing with finances, hiring, etc. because my boss doesn’t speak English but these conversations are conducted in English.

The difference between all of that and Rurouni Kenshin is the language involved. For my job, I only need to know some computer terms (most of which are katakana versions of the English anyways), keigo, sonkeigo, and kenjougo. I can get by with everyday Japanese otherwise.

Rurouni Kenshin, on the other hand, takes place in the Meiji Era, and the language is largely true to the period. Expressions that Japanese people use katakana for now are substituted with lower-frequency Japanese words, for example. It’s much more literary. Also, there’s a ton of sword words. Omg there’s so many. There’s a word for “catching a blade with your bare hands.” (白刃取り)Like that’s gonna come up in a work email lol. I’ve read up to volume 16 of the manga, and I have over 1,500 new words saved in my dictionary app for it. Conversely, I’ve looked up only 700 words for work since I started 8 months ago.

Here’s my RuroKen memrise course if you’re interested! Haven’t added all the words yet.


I see… thanks for your detailed explanation. Wow I didn’t expect rurouni kenshin to has such complex linguistic seeing it aimed for shounen audience, I read thru it over 15 years ago in my native language and didn’t think much of the language complexity hahaha

Yeah, same here! I asked my Japanese friend about it, and she said that most Japanese kids wouldn’t understand the majority of it either, but they read it because the characters and the fights were cool lol.


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