Rev up Your Reading Rampage

The Japanese novel:  Feared. Desired. Misunderstood. The ultimate goal of so many Japanese adventurers out there. Manga with furigana? Piece of cake. Novels with no pictures and a kanji onslaught? Maybe one day.  One day? Who are you kidding?

Rev up Your Reading Rampage 1

Typical Japanese learner: I want to be able to read novels one day.
Typical Japanese learner’s effort to read novels one day: Does everything but reading novels
Typical Japanese learner who finally starts reading a novel: Has the goal of finishing that one novel in a year.

A year! For one novel? This can’t be.

I know, I know. Your Japanese isn’t good enough yet, hence you can’t read novels, or if you do, it takes you an eternity, with a constant need to look up words on every page just to get through them.

Now if novels aren’t even in your radar and you don’t plan on ever familiarizing yourself with them, try to remember that they are key to you sounding awesome in Japanese. Think to your own language quickly. What do people who go far have in common? They read a lot. Everything, everywhere, all the time, and with a passion. Are you going to let your excuses get in the way of you becoming awesome?

When should you start reading Japanese novels.

Don’t even touch one before you are a little into the J-J phase. Why?

1. RTK phase: you don’t know Japanese yet
2. J-E phase: you are learning the building blocks. You want to focus on those building blocks.
3. Beginning J-J phase: you are currently tackling the hardest thing imaginable. Use the rest of your time to enjoy yourself a bit.
4. Novels!

So when should you begin your reading rampage? Somewhere around 500 to 1000 J-J sentences. At this point, novels will start becoming a major source of your J-J cards.

Read according to your level

Unfortunately in the beginning you can’t choose exactly what you want to read. Some genres are just harder than others. You need to find novels that you like, but are also readable at your current level.

This absolutely does not mean reading novels targeted for babies or children or junior high school students (unless the highly unlikely that you happen to fall in one of the above categories). This is bad. You need to read novels targeted for adults (or the occasional “good for all ages” type novels like Harry Potter). Why? Because you are an adult.

So how do you know what novels are right for your level? There is a more in depth novel guide in the works here. But even before that, go to a Japanese book store, and browse. Look, read a page, see how it feels.  No bookstore? You can usually get samples online. And even just generally, think about the type of novel it is. If it is a deep detective story, expect difficulty. If it is a casual high school romance story, expect ease.

A fun way to start can often be with translated novels. The popular choice seems to be the translated version of Harry Potter. I did this with all seven books. And then with Lord of the Rings.

It is one thing to know that you should be reading and another thing to be actually be um . . . reading. This is where you need to develop a new mindset, as is the case with almost every aspect of Japanese learning that tries to knock you down.

Treasure Hunts

Having a positive view dominates all successful methods and can be a major solution to most problems. Novels need some assistance too. I have developed the view that when reading novels with only a lackluster Japanese level, to consider each novel as going on a treasure hunt. So what exactly is the treasure that you are hunting for?

New words/grammar/kanji that you don’t know.

Treasure you say? You hate when this happens. You want to know everything already.  Every time you come across a word you don’t know it’s like a push backwards. Why would you go out of your way to take joy in searching for this?

Because you will start to take pleasure in finding unknown words. The unknown is special. The unknown is what spurs on humanity’s curiosity. You are diving into uncharted waters. Don’t dread this. Cherish it.

One of my most fond methods when reading novels, at a time when I couldn’t read novels, was to highlight every new word I didn’t know in a book as I was going through it. I would not stop my reading to ever look anything up, but just kept highlighting. By the end of the book, there would of course be hundreds of highlighted words.

Then when I would add my daily J-J sentences to Anki, I would just take them straight from the highlighted words. Read and repeat. Reading and highlighted word sentence additions were two completely different tasks.

And what happens as a result? The more you do this, the less unknown words there are. Books often repeat the same new words over and over. How many times do you think the Japanese version of Harry Potter uses the word wand (杖、つえ).  Because of this, sometimes even through the duration of just one book, your highlights start to decrease towards the end of that book.

Over time with this method, you start to notice something:

You begin to like being on the hunt for new words. Since you want to expand your Japanese and your J-J cards, you need new words. So what happens once you start knowing everything you are coming across? New words you don’t know become rare. They become hard to find. They become treasure.

You probably aren’t there yet, but trust me, you will get to the point where you are excited when you see a new word or Kanji you don’t know. You will light up. You have unraveled yet another tiny mystery of this deep language.

It’s a weird process. The less you know, the more daunting learning what you don’t know is. The more you know, the more you like learning what you don’t know. It takes some time to cross this threshold, but once you do, you will enjoy novels even that much more.

How many novels are you reading?

I often get asked this. People mean well.  They want to learn to read.  They want to actually read novels. And so they set those weak 1-2 novels a year goals. So how many books a year is a good pace?

How about one every 1-2 weeks?

“What! I don’t read at that pace in English!”

No you don’t. But you could. You could read a short book every few days in English if you put your time and effort into it. But you aren’t learning English. You don’t need to go at that pace. You are learning Japanese. Reading in Japanese, while also containing the benefits of enjoyment and knowledge expansion, is also done to improve your Japanese.

Japanese light novels are quick. You can easily set a goal of 20~25 pages a day. Since most light novels often only have around 200-300 pages, you can usually meet your goal in one to two weeks.  Still too much? Try three weeks. But never one year.

Continue at this frequent pace of a novel every 1~2 weeks for a year, and talk to me at the end of that year. I guarantee that you will blow me away with your Japanese at that point.

A rule of thumb: If you can remember how many novels you’ve read up to this date you are doing it wrong.

Don’t fear novels. Look forward to the thrill of the treasure hunt. Do it frequently. Do it often. Don’t hold back from one of the most exciting parts of Japanese culture.

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Rev up Your Reading Rampage — 58 Comments

  1. I’ve read two volumes of キノの旅, which is more a collection of short stories, and just a few days ago finished my first novel – 銀河鉄道の夜.

    The biggest takeaway from that for me, as far as study methods, was that I should probably be SRSing less and reading more.

    If you want to learn to read fluently the only way to do that is by reading. A lot. It’s like swimming. Time practising strokes and time on the swim bench will help but the core activity has to be lots of miles in the water.

    Now it’s back to キノ for a bit and then I want to tackle Hobbit again. Hobbit, at least the version I have, is tricky because there are so few kanji. 銀河鉄道の夜 is a bit like that too. Sounds counter-intuitive to a beginner (i.e. me as of not that long ago) but it’s so easy to get lost in a forest of hiragana. Perfect if you’re a Japanese kid who speaks fluently but has a way to go still in kanji. For a 外人 who started with kanji it can get bewildering very quickly. That’s another good argument for sticking to adult material I think.

  2. I feel like this is me. My parents are Singaporean and Malaysian. They never taught me how to read chinese characters. I am able to speak and read mandarin but not able to read it much…
    Any J novels recommended for a 18 year old here?:P

    • This will be discussed more in part 2 of the post but let’s just say for now, a lot.

      And thanks for the link. Being a heavy reader does unlock the language in a way that wouldn’t be possible without novels.

  3. Are there novels targeted at babies? (o’_’)?

    Basically, where I’m at is a novel completely supported by furigana. Fortunately, I found one when in Japan. It’s interesting, because my husband says おおかみこども雨と雪 is for adults, not kids, yet the novel is completely with furigana and can be found in both the general and kids sections.

    I know I can’t rely on furigana forever though. I happened to pick up a manga with no furigana at BookOff. Perhaps this will help build my skill of reading without furigana, while the furigana supported novel will help me understand the language of a novel. I feel they are two different skills, and one of the reasons why novel reading is so difficult is because often you have to tackle them both at the same time.

    • I think that is true to an extent.
      I found the first two or three chapters of the books I mentioned above to be fairly difficult (they have no furigana) when I was first reading through it. However, when I was reading the fourth, I almost forgot I was reading Japanese during most of it. The book tends to use a lot of the same language over and over, and once I got used to that, it became much easier to read.

    • What I found ideal for my first Japanese novel was a translation of a book that I read many times as a kid. I enjoy reading it for nostalgia’s sake, I never have any problems with understanding what’s going on, and it has furigana on all but a few of the very easiest kanji.

    • Rachel, push through. Even if you can’t understand everything, the only way to get used to novels is to read them. Don’t wait for some ideal moment when you believe your level is high enough.

      • Okay, I’ll keep at it. The more I think about it, the more I realize it’s like my passive listening environment. The more I listen, the more I learn, despite limited context because of lack of video, so I imagine its the same when reading novels.

  4. I’ve nothing much to comment except that I’m really looking forward to the next posts in this series. It feels pretty timely for where I’m at, which is somewhere in that 500-1000 J-J range.
    I’ll probably take my first stabs at “novels” later this week or the following (which is when my Kindle should arrive :) ).

  5. Great post!! I need to start doing this rather than looking a textbooks to find words that I don’t know. I have one question what do you do when you know all the words in a sentence but do not understand the meaning of that sentence or the meaning is completely different from what you thought it was. This is something the gets me down a lot when I reading. It makes me question my Japanese skills.

    • After doing a LOT of reading, I’ve come to realise that most sentences like this are one of the following:

      1) Some Japanese idiom or phrase that I haven’t come across previously (it helps to look things up in a good Japanese – Japanese dictionary) .

      2) There’s a word in there which I think I know the meaning of, but actually there’s another meaning that I haven’t seen before.

      3) I’m splitting up the words wrong (it happens when there is lots of hiragana sometimes)

      I find that the best and easiest thing to do is to ask a Japanese person, who can probably tell you what it is in the sentence that you aren’t understanding. If you don’t have anyone who can help, then either checking through the sentence really carefully and trying to figure out what it is, or, my personal favourite, ignoring the sentence and moving on.

      Ignoring things seems to work as, for a start, if it’s important or commonly used, you’ll see it again, and maybe you’ll see whatever it was that was giving you problems in a context which is easier for you to understand. It also helps you to be able to enjoy the reading process more, unless your idea of fun is looking up everything in a dictionary.

      I have found a few times that after seeing similar kinds of sentences, or a word that I’ve had problems with, something has just clicked and suddenly I can understand it.

      Just so you know.. this problem doesn’t go away. I still see sentences which confuse the hell out of me after 8 years of studying Japanese, and 4 years of living in Japan/doing most things in Japanese/reading a LOT of books in Japanese. You just have to find a way to deal with it. Eventually you’ll be excited when you come across one of these sentences as it’s like a mystery waiting to be solved.

      …Wow this reply to a question which wasn’t even directed at me was stupidly long. I hope it was helpful in some way though? I wish that somebody had told me that it’s okay to ignore stuff when I first started reading Japanese novels, if they had I might have been able to finish my first one in less than 3 months!!!

  6. This post pretty much sums up my approach to reading in Japanese :D
    I went through a period last year where I was reading REALLY intensively (getting through novels in 2-3 days etc) and my Japanese improved really dramatically from doing that, even though I was only looking up words if they kept on appearing and annoying me or seemed vital to the story. It’s amazing how much you can learn passively.

  7. I would never highlight my books (>_<).

    I have a lot to think about after this post. I have over a dozen of キノの旅 light novels I can use with this method (they are my husband's), and a few other novels as well. So I definitely have the resources. Last time I tried reading キノの旅, I couldn't manage more than three pages a day. But I didn't have the mindset of just doing it, getting 20-30 pages done, whether I understand or not. I wonder if I could do it now. Maybe I need to replace my immersion mp3 player with a book. I'm in the process of reading a novel, but I'm slowly reading and transcribing at the same time. I have no set goal time for when I want to finish it, I just get a little bit done every day. I think I need to designate a book for speed reading every two weeks.

    I'm not highlighting though. I could write down the new words into a notebook, but that might slow me down. I could do it in hiragana and put a page number for speed, then add it to anki later.


    • (Yes, I’m learning Chinese, but I figure the process of learning a language is similar from language to language.)

      I’m currently reading a bilingual Chinese/English version of Diary of a Wimpy Kid (小屁孩日记). I too don’t like the idea of highlighting books because all of those markings would get annoying once I know the words. Instead I just use a pencil, making sure that what I write/underline will be easy to erase in the future. It’s great going back over a passage and erasing the underlining under the words that I now know.

      Alternatively I guess you could use sticky notes and write down the new words on that page on the sticky note. You’d still have to write down the new words but not the page numbers. Probably only best to do this once you’re good enough not to have a new word every page, though. I’m not yet good enough to do this with Chinese- maybe I need to adopt the attitude of being able to ignore stuff I don’t know, but I find that incredibly hard when I don’t know the pronunciation of that character. Argh.

      • (I’m sure it is! Some tips might apply better to some languages then others, but for the most part I’m sure they apply widespread.)

        That must be even harder to ignore with Chinese, as with Japanese when I don’t know how to pronounce a kanji I have a broken pronunciation of the sentence with that kanji in my mind, but at least I have kana to fill in the rest of the sentence.

        Good idea! Perhaps I’ll do some light pencil underlining. I still couldn’t even do that with the books I really like, because I don’t want there to be wear. But my husband’s books are really old, so there’s already wear. I think I will try this idea.

          • I used those in a textbook once and was disappointed to discover that while they were erasable when first used (good for correcting mistakes) they hardened and became non-erasable within a couple weeks (not good for long term but not permanent marking.)

    • I use either book darts ( or mini post-it flags to mark things without doing anything to the book. I store a bunch on the back page so I can carry just the book around with me. I mark by line (or half-line by choosing top vs. bottom with vertical text) but the flags could be stuck in the middle of the page to mark a specific word.

      Note that if they were left there a very long time post-it flags can leave a mark if they are on cheap paper that browns over time as they will prevent that just where they are stuck.

        • The Daiso in Japan sells something they call “Circle Seals” in packs of 2000-3000 apiece. They stick to paper and are usually just big enough to cover a kanji you don’t know. Then, when you’re ready to put that sentence into Anki, you remove the seal and the text underneath is good as new. They’re less bulky and expensive than Post-its, and you can focus on the problem area of the sentence right away.
          I always test them on an unimportant page first, but I’ve been able to remove them from most books without any problems. There can be a problem with leaving them on paper for too long (especially in the summer), which can cause a gluey residue to remain on the paper, but that’s a great motivation to get your sentences into Anki promptly!

  8. I’m getting very excited about reading now. It’s my most major goal, although I am only at the j-e phrase I can’t wait.

    I already ordered the first Harry potter book online and it should be arriving soon. It will be good motivation to study more.

  9. Some treasure hunts I play to have a higher ratio of reading to ank-adding with stuff where there’s a ton that I don’t understand:

    ・phrases that have precisely one new thing (I prefer to use sentences from media to dictionary examples if I have the option, so this is good for making the kind of cards I like)
    ・phrases that have precisely one new thing that I figure out from context (I consider this the minimum to be making good use of my time)

  10. I want to do this! Where do you go about finding books at the right level? I’d love to be reading in Japanese – I love to read in English, too and it’d be way easier for me to do than leaving the TV on all the time. :)

    So, basically my question is either for book recommendations or to find out where you get book recommendations from.

    • A book recommendation guide is in the works for this site (similar to the drama/variety show guides). I’ve been sidetracked with a few other projects, but I am getting to it. If anyone wants to add any recommendations in the mean time here, please do.

  11. Really made me reevalutate. I haven’t been reading like I have hoped. I was going at that pace then just suddenly stopped.

  12. Finally being at the point where I can read novels without having to stop ten times a page to look up a word is opening up a whole new world for me.

    I would recommend checking out novels for works you might already be familiar with, like Battle Royale or Parasite Eve (two I’m working on right now)

  13. I rented 偽装運河殺人事件 by 津村秀介 (つむら しゅうすけ) from the library, and as in the other books I looked at, the print is really small, and I have a hard time reading the (rarely occuring) furigana even with a 7x magnifying glass. Are there any possibillities of buying relatively cheap books with larger print when you’re in the UK?

    And I only focus on n+1 sentences from the book as well, because there are a ton of really long sentences with many unknown words. I had to slow down the adding of sentences because I’ve got lots of work to do to even be able to pass my course at university, so I can’t allow the Anki reviews to exceed 70-80 per day, though I do spend more time immersing (watching shows/reading/playing Zelda in Japanese/etc.)

    Right now, I feel like J-J is hindering my progress, because I have to spend 10x more time learning the words than I usually did. Though I am aware that some words might not have accurate English translations (like the basic word 元気..)

  14. Hmm… Although my Japanese level is far from being able to read novels or manga, I don’t like translated books. This is because it is full of non-Japanese culture and it isn’t native material written with native readers in mind.
    Can’t wait till I get to the level when I can read books.

    • Although it is common to start with translated books, it’s in no way a necessity. You can get the same familiarity by jumping into a series you’ve seen the anime or drama to. My second novel was おおかみこどもの雨と雪, which was my breakthough in novel reading. I know how you feel. I don’t like the idea of reading a translated book either.

  15. wow I’m so glad I found this hidden gem of an article. I definitely definitely need to read more novels. I feel like I read A LOT. But I barely ever read novels (not including manga).

    He’s a cool tip for anyone reading ebooks (and more specifically, on an iDevice). You can highlight any unknown words and grab them as a text file later. Helps save a lot of time :)

    • Novels really take up your Japanese game. You’ll start to feel a major before and after effect.

      And after using the iPhone highlight feature for many months now, I really wish it existed when I used to do it manually. It would’ve made such a difference!

      • It seems like the hardest thing ever to me, mainly because there’s no furigana I guess, and I’ll probably have to constantly search up kanji readings I forgot on anki. I guess it just takes getting used to?

        • Skip readings that you don’t know, highlight words you haven’t learnt. And you can also highlight and define words on the spot with a j-j dictionary on iPhone. It’s all quite incredible imo

          • How can you find what the kanjis are, so you can look them up in J-J? That is the biggest problem for me, I’ve already completed RTK but it’s hard to remember them seeing them out in the wild.

            • The kanjis hiragana reading? Highlight word on iPhone, click define, manage dictionaries, download j-e and/or j-j dictionary (I only have j-j). Then repeat procedure for kanji’fied words and you’ll get a definition and reading. If you don’t have a Mac and you’re hell bent on using iBooks over kindle, you can search up words on the web by highlighting words in iBooks and then you can copy and paste from there. Alternatively you can use a Mac to get your highlights/ notes off your books. And with kindle app on iOS that’s much much easier to do, even with a pc. I use iBooks despite its shortcomings because it’s just so beautiful and intuitive. Up to you.

            • Video games present a similar challenge for me when dealing with unknown words. Here are a few ways to tackle the problem (in order of least hassle to most hassle).

              Option 1: Guess the reading
              If you know other words that use the kanji, or know readings for other kanji that look similar (ex: characters with 生 tend to be read as せい), you can take an educated guess at the reading. I’d say I have a ~60% success rate with this.

              Option 2: “Patching”
              If you know any word that uses the kanji, you can enter that word and delete the extra bits, leaving just the kanji behind for dictionary search purposes. For example, say I came across 減少 and didn’t know it. I could type in 減る and 少し, and delete the extra bits, then search the word that way.

              Option 3: Radical Lookup
     has an option to look up kanji based on their radicals. You can use this to get the kanji and copy-paste it into your j-j dictionary of choice. Most of the radicals align with the primitives you learned in RTK, so you should get the hang of it pretty quickly.

              Hope that helps!

            • In addition to what Matt said, drawing out the kanji either in IME Pad on the computer or on an app like Kanji Recognizer (Android) is super helpful.

        • Takes a second to highlight a word, and it pops up the reading and definition at the bottom of the screen (without even leaving your current page).

          I have to agree with James. It’s pretty amazing.

          • Do you find you have to redownload the J-J dictionary every time you use iBooks? Or is that just me?

            • I’ve only used Kindle on the iPhone so I’m not sure if that is a common issue.

    • How do you save the highlights to a text file? Are you talking about the iBooks app or the Kindle app? I have all these highlighted words in my Harry Potter book but I’m too lazy to actually add them to Anki, heh.

      • iBooks or kindle. There are few ones on the Internet.

        How to you get Harry potter in Japanese on iBooks? Can’t find it on store

        • I bought mine on Pottermore, which seems to be JK Rowling’s official home for all things Harry Potter. From there you download the epub and just add it directly to iBooks from iTunes on your computer.

  16. Since getting hooked on PSYCHO-PASS last month, I decided to buy the light novel version and the spin-off novels. I would say my understanding of the anime is about 70%. Reading the LN version makes it a lot more fun since I already watched the anime and have a general understanding of it (still on immersion of course ;)) plus there are some parts in the novel that the anime couldn’t flesh out like how the characters feel etc.

    Reading is still on-going. I don’t read everything page per page. I skip to the parts I like first. Surprisingly, it kinda shook off my fear of reading large block of Japanese texts. Although it still ‘hard’ because I do find myself with a ‘????’ moment (what is this kanji, what is going on, what did I just read). Perhaps that perfectionism has been making it ‘hard’ for me to read daily since I do want to be certain of what I read…and my general problem with focus and distraction lol.

    But…I don’t want to be that person who finishes a novel in a year. I’m going to read everyday ! And learn new stuff from doing so (currently learning since I do notice a LOT of words and phrases repeatedly and add them into Anki).

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