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?
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.
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.
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.
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.