It can be absolutely terrifying to pick up, for the first time, a book that’s written in Japanese from beginning to end. How could anyone ever know all those thousands of words? How could anyone slog through all those pages?
And yet, reading novels is one of the best things you can do for your Japanese skills. If you can see a word or a grammar construction hundreds of times in hundreds of different contexts, your knowledge will become much more solid than if you had only studied a flash card in your SRS. And you’ll be much more motivated to study when you’re not just reading to get better at a language, but reading because you desperately want to find out what happens next. So, are you ready to take the plunge?
A Solid Foundation
There’s nothing fun about reading when you have to look up a word every sentence. You’ll die from frustration before the plot even starts to get moving. When you listen to dramas or read manga, you have enough surrounding context to help you fill in blank spots, but with novels, there’s nothing but you and the text.
The good news is that contemporary novels and short stories use a lot of basic, everyday vocabulary, which makes them much easier to read than, say, the newspaper. By doing spot checks of several of my easier novels, I’ve found that a base of about 4000 vocabulary words – around N3 level on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test – is enough to get started. That definitely won’t cover every word you see, and a lot depends on the genre of the book and the author’s style, but if you have 4000 words and a good grasp of intermediate grammar, you’re ready to get started.
Intensive and extensive reading
Intensive reading is reading that focuses on each individual sentence, on new vocabulary and unfamiliar grammar constructions. Extensive reading, on the other hand, is reading that’s focused on meaning. The ideal is to be able to understand at least the basic thrust of what’s going on with as little dictionary lookup as possible. Read books that are a little below your level, skip over words you don’t understand, and get on with what’s going to happen in the story.
Both intensive and extensive reading have their place, but I think that novels are a great place to add extensive reading into your studying. The more you read, the more you will get out of reading, and you won’t get much out of reading if you only read a few pages a day because you’re trying to look up every single vocabulary word. There’s been a lot of research done on the benefits of extensive reading, but you don’t need research to tell you that reading is a lot more fun when you can read fast enough to get engaged in the plot.
The problem with extensive reading in Japanese is the chance that you’ll pick up the wrong reading for a kanji compound — but you shouldn’t let that stop you! Try reading children’s books and light novels, which have more furigana than adult books. Or wait to look up words until you’ve seen them a few times in the same book and realize that you’re making up a reading that may be wrong.
Light novels, children’s novels, adult novels?
The novel industry in Japan is divided into three segments. There are novels targeted at adults; there are novels targeted at children; and there are light novels. Light novels are targeted at a middle or high school market, and tend to be a lot less serious than the novels put out by mainstream imprints. Anime series like Spice and Wolf, The Story of Saiunkoku, and The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi all started out as light novels.
There are hard books and easy books in every category. A dense children’s fantasy like Harry Potter isn’t necessarily easy, and a light novel that takes place in a historical setting or has a lot of technical vocabulary may be much harder than an adult novel that’s mostly about romance and relationships. The first novel I read in Japanese was an adult novel, but if I had to do it all over again I would probably start with a great elementary-level book like 魔女の宅急便 (Kiki’s Delivery Service). Ultimately, you should let your interests drive your choice of reading material – but you may not be ready for that novel about the Meiji Restoration.
The most important thing is to not be afraid to throw down a book you’re sick of reading, or a book that’s too difficult for your current level, and move on to something else. Reading should always be something that builds up your motivation, not something that drags it down.