Read Your Way to Japanese Proficiency (practical strategies)

Reading in Japanese does more that just contribute to building your reading skill, it contributes to your overall competence in the language. Doing a lot of reading is an essential activity for any Japanese learner. And especially if you enjoy reading and were hoping that reading in Japanese could help you become proficient in the language, fortunately the answer is positive.

Reading in Japanese is a valuable activity for learning the language as it provides critical linguistic input, is an effective means for acquiring new vocabulary and idiomatic expressions, helps solidify one’s grasp of grammar, and cultivates understanding of the nuances of the Japanese language.

Learning a language is often categorized into four skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. But these skills aren’t separate entities to be learned on their own, rather they are all mutually supportive of one another [1]. Reading, alongside listening, is one of the input skills. Taking in input, particularly comprehensible input, is critical to acquiring the language which in turn underlies the develop your output skills, speaking and writing [2].

In terms of acquiring the Japanese language, one of the main things reading does is afford you the opportunity to be exposed to vocabulary and idiomatic expressions in context. This will help reinforce your knowledge of words and expressions that you have learned previously [3]. And it may also expose you to new ways of using them. But the most important thing that will happen is exposure to new words and expressions.

Having a broad range of vocabulary and expressions at your disposal is critical to your ability to communicate in Japanese, both spoken and written. Reading is a great way to build your lexicon. When you come across a new word, you may be able to infer the meaning from the context, but if not, you can look it up. Note: looking up words written in unfamiliar kanji can be a challenge, but there are many ways to overcome it. I write in detail about how to lookup kanji here.

In any case, it’s possible that you may soon forget the word, but the beauty of reading is that if you do enough of it you will get repeated exposures. Seeing a word in context and having repeated exposures to it is what will enable you to acquire it. It is suggested that you need about 17 exposures to get a new word into long term memory [4]. You can use a spaced repetition flashcard system such as Anki to help you along, but I’ll share another powerful shortcut below.

Another thing reading helps you do is review grammar. Chances are when you first learned a new grammatical structure, you read an explanation about how it is used, reviewed a few example sentences, and did some drills to familiarize yourself with it. But thereafter, you may not have had many chances to use it and in so doing, internalize it.

Reading gives you the opportunity to see grammar in action in its native form. The nice thing about reading is that the text is in written form, which allows you to take the opportunity to pause and have a slow careful look at sentences and analyze how individual grammar points are used and how various structures work together to make complete sentences. More on sentence analysis below.

You’ll also start to get a feel for how sentences are naturally formulated in Japanese and what words are used to express various thoughts. Japanese is quite different from English for example and thoughts just don’t get expressed the same way. A high volume of written input is therefore quite important to get a grasp on the natural way of expressing things in Japanese and the nuances of the language. More on nuance below. Also, for more detail about the role of input and how to balance it with output, I write about it here.

It’s important to note that you don’t need to wait until you have finished studying advanced grammar and learned at least 2000 kanji to get started reading. I’ll discuss a recommended approach below. But just know that it’s ok to not understand absolutely everything. Putting in effort to try to read is a valuable learning opportunity and, as mentioned, a critical tool to help you ultimately acquire the language [5].

How to Get Started Reading in Japanese

Getting into reading text in all Japanese may seem daunting, especially if there is no side-by-side English translation to refer to when there are parts that you do not understand. The task is indeed a challenge, mainly due to the hurdle presented by kanji and structural difference from English and other languages. But there is straightforward way you can go about getting started on Japanese reading journey.

For learners to start reading in Japanese, a foundation of kanji and grammar should be built first. Next, to enable reading comprehension, texts appropriate for the learner’s level should be selected. Appropriate texts contain mostly recognizable kanji and grammar the have been previously studied.

Before breaking into reading in Japanese, it’s important to have a basic foundation in place, otherwise, it will just be a laborious decoding exercise using dictionaries and grammar guides. In order to read for meaning and to build your acquisition of the language, the amount of material you can’t comprehend can’t be too excessive.

Learning to read in Japanese is not like when you learned to read your native language as a child, where you already have existing implicit knowledge of the structure of the language. To tackle Japanese reading, you need to take a staged approach where you learn a bit of grammar and conjunctive structures first, in addition to some vocabulary and associated kanji [6]. Once you have these building blocks as your foundation you will be able to take on the task of reading.

Another important thing to make very clear is that the central challenge to reading in Japanese is undoubtedly kanji [6]. You will need to continuously be learning new characters and working on your ability to recognize and read them. Interestingly, kanji is not just important for reading, but for speaking too. I have written in detail about the importance of kanji here.

Getting back to building your foundation so you can start reaping the benefits of reading, a great place to build it which I highly recommend is the Genki textbook series. Genki will gently guide you through the entire beginner level of Japanese. As you work through the textbooks, you will build up a solid repertoire of grammar, vocabulary, and kanji.

One of the many great things about Genki is that there are short reading passages throughout the textbooks that only use words and grammar that you have learned up to that point. Even at the beginner level you will already be starting to read and getting the benefits that reading has on reinforcing what you have learned. I have written in much greater detail about the benefits of Genki here.

After about two years of study, you will probably be ready to start reading materials outside of your textbook. But even at this point, it will probably still be a struggle to apply what you have learned to read native materials independently [7]. This is true in my experience. I started reading on my own after I had finished my intermediate textbook, and it was tough. By the way, for a recommendation on an intermediate textbook, I have written about where to go after Genki here.

Although reading was tough, it had great benefits. I could feel that I was acquiring vocabulary more easily and I was enjoying the fact that I could in fact read in Japanese! The key is to choose materials that are at your level. By choosing materials at your level, you are less distracted by having to lookup a large number of words you don’t know. You can read more or less unassisted and work on trying to grasp the overall meaning.

For extensive reading to be possible and for it to have the desired results, texts must be well within the learners’ reading competence in the foreign language.

Richard Day & Julian Bamford [8]

So, let’s get reading in Japanese! Below is a list of resources where you can look for beginner and intermediate Japanese reading materials at your level:

For more advanced Japanese reading options by famous Japanese authors, Professor Julia Bullock of Emroy College recommends the following in increasing order of difficulty [7]:

  • Short stories by Murakami Haruki
  • Short stories by Yoshimoto Banana
  • Stories by Kanai Meiko
  • Short fiction by Mukoda Kuniko

In order to continuously break into more advanced and more challenging reading materials, you will need to continue the pattern of learning more advanced grammar and kanji, and then selecting reading materials appropriate to your new level. This pattern is actually one of the great things about studying for the JLPT (Japanese language proficiency test).

JLPT study guides, such as Shin Kanzen Master, teach the grammar, vocabulary and kanji needed for each level of the JLPT, but in addition, these guides are packed with reading practice texts that use what you have learned and are therefore appropriate for your level. Furthermore, since it is test preparation, there will be reading comprehension questions about the texts. Trying to answer these questions is a great way to gauge if you are grasping the content or not.

How to Become a Proficient Japanese Reader

Now we move onto how to become a good reader of Japanese and really supercharge your benefits from reading. By employing a number of powerful strategies, you will become the fluent reader that you want to all while improving your ability to communicate in Japanese along the way.

Learners become proficient readers of Japanese by reading with the help of a teacher, choosing topics that interest them and of which they have prior knowledge, making reading a habit, journaling about what they read, analyzing complex sentences, and translating text to their native language.

The silver bullet to becoming a good reader in Japanese is to read with the help of a teacher. When you come across words you don’t know, have your teacher explain them in Japanese before trying to look them up. To ensure that you are understanding what you read, take opportunities to explain to your teacher what you just read and what you understood by it. Your teacher can help you in any areas that you may not have understood properly. To find your Japanese teacher, I recommend italki. I have written in detail about the benefits of italki here.

Two other key variables in becoming a good reader in Japanese are to read about topics of which you have prior knowledge and topics that interest you. The beauty of reading about familiar topics is that they provide an opportunity for readers to deduce unknown vocabulary and syntax from the text itself [1]. And reading about topics that interest you is highly beneficial for a number of reasons.

The principle of freedom of choice means that learners can select texts as they do in their own language, that is, they can choose texts they expect to understand, to enjoy or to learn from.

Richard Day & Julian Bamford [8]

When you read about topics that interest you, you have intrinsic motivation to read, e.g., for enjoyment, or for learning something. This motivation leads to a higher level of engagement with the content which will enable you to get the most out it. Furthermore, interest and motivation to read is what will help make it a habit. You need to read a lot to reap the language learning benefits of reading, so making it a habit is crucial.

Another thing that you will want to make a habit is journaling in Japanese about what you read. When you write about you have read, you will need to ponder more deeply about the message, and you will almost certainly have to use the new words and expressions you learned while reading, which accelerates your ability to acquire them.

Writing about what one reads is therefore a powerful strategy for processing and retaining information.

Professor Julia C. Bullock [7]

The best place to journal in Japanese is LangCorrect. On LangCorrect you can post journal entries and have them corrected by native Japanese speakers, the only thing you need to do in return is correct the journal entries of other users who are learning your native language. I have written in detail about the benefits of using LangCorrect here.

Continuing on the thread of language learning benefits, lets talk about a couple more strategies to employ while reading. When you come across a long, complex sentence that you cannot make sense of, try breaking it down and diagramming it. This forces [you] to state the logical connections between parts of the sentence, particularly modifiers and subordinate clauses, whose relationship may be initially unclear [7].

Another strategy is to try to translate difficult sentences to English or your native language. This really tests your understanding and pushes you to correctly grasp the nuance of the Japanese language [7]. As mentioned earlier, what you will find is that there is often no one to one translation between Japanese and English. You will probably have to use different words and express thoughts from a different angle when translating them to English.

The above type of analysis is the first level of learning to read in Japanese, where you are heavily involved in monitoring language mechanics and vocabulary [1]. Even when you choose materials at you level, it can still be a bit painful having to lookup words and expressions and refer to grammar guides, but you just need to plod through it.

Your ultimate goal is move from this lower-level text analysis to upper-level conceptual understanding which is all about how different parts of the text relate to one another and how your own worldly knowledge helps you derive the meaning of text [7].

When you get to the upper level, you understand at least 98% of what you read [9], and reading in Japanese becomes yours to enjoy forever! And to top it all off, you don’t even need to be in Japan to get the Japanese learning benefits of reading. In fact, with some effort, it is possible to learn Japanese outside of Japan. I write in detail about it here. Happy learning!


[1] Everson, Michael E. and Kuriya, Yasumi. (1998). An Exploratory Study into the Reading Strategies of Learners of Japanese as a Foreign Language. The Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese, Vol. 32, No. 1. American Association of Teachers of Japanese.

[2] Stephen D. Krashen, Tracy D. Terrell, (1988). The Natural Approach: Language Acquisition in the Classroom. Prentice Hall International English Language Teaching.

[3] Leung, Ching Yin. (2002). Extensive Reading and Language Learning: A Diary Study of a Beginning Learner of Japanese. Reading in a Foreign Language Volume 14, No. 1. University of Hawai‘i at Manoa.

[4] Bennett, Colette. (2021). Top 17 Exposures to Learn New Words. Retrieved from

[5] Bamford, Julian and Day, Richard. (1997). Extensive Reading: What Is It? Why Bother? The Language Teacher, Issue 21.5.

[6] Jorden, Eleanor H. (1975). Reading Japanese: A Suggested Route for the Foreigner. The Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese, Vol. 10, No. 2/3. American Association of Teachers of Japanese.

[7] Bullock, Julia C. (2009). JLL FORUM: Reading Literature in Japanese: Practical Strategies for Instruction. Japanese Language and Literature, Vol. 43, No. 2. American Association of Teachers of Japanese.

[8] Bamford, Julian and Day, Richard. (2002). Top Ten Principles for Teaching Extensive Reading. Reading in a Foreign Language, Vol. 14, Number 2.

[9] McLean, Stuart. (2021). The coverage comprehension model, its importance to pedagogy and research, and threats to the validity with which it is operationalized. Reading in a Foreign Language, 33(1), 126-140.

Works Consulted:

Kondo-Brown, Kimi. (2006). Affective variables and Japanese L2 reading ability. University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. Reading in a Foreign Language Volume 18, No. 1.

Colten Dumonceau

My goal is to provide information that will help you learn Japanese as quickly and effectively as possible. I have spent more than ten years learning Japanese, mostly self-taught, from absolute beginner to an advanced level. I believe its possible to go much faster than I did. Please let me share with you the best learning strategies I have uncovered.

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