Breaking into reading Japanese

At the very beginning, reading can seem like an impossible challenge. No matter how many words you memorize up front, you’re essentially guaranteed to see something unfamiliar within moments of trying to read your first book. Looking up every new word and grammar point will grind you to a halt, but trying to maintain momentum can leave you feeling totally lost.

How do you strike a balance? How early can you realistically start reading without it feeling like a complete struggle?

Step 1: Prepare

It seems popular these days to advise learners to dive right into native material with no grammar foundation and “just learn the way natives do”. I think this is ultimately an overcorrection against the ineffective approaches that are endemic to second language education at large, but to completely rule out grammar study is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Even learning one or two fundamental grammar points will give you an instant boost to comprehension early on, allowing you to easily recognize patterns that would otherwise take many encounters. I highly recommend you get the basics under your belt before diving into reading.

Similarly, I think that being familiar with some core vocabulary is very helpful at the beginning. Lots of anki decks include words like 飛行機 or 新聞, neither of which I consider to be truly core. It’s important to recognize that most of these frequency lists are based on newspapers, and as such will only include the kinds of words that newspapers tend to use — which is to say, if you plan to read fantasy, science fiction, or other similar genres, these “core” decks will have done a poor job of preparing you.

True core vocab includes words like それ, はず, 気, 話, 思う, 行く; words which will appear in every story you’ll ever read. Rather than grinding thousands of words that might never appear in your area of interest, study a few hundred that are all but guaranteed to be useful to you.

Step 2: Choose the right material

Some people have the ability to jump directly into material that’s way above their level and struggle through it just on the basis that they find it interesting. If that’s you, the advice in this section probably doesn’t apply to you. Personally, if something is too hard I find it demotivating and hard to focus on for very long. Here are some of the things that helped me stay focused and productive in the early stages:

Read something easy

This one is pretty obvious in theory, but what to choose? Here are my personal recommendations for good beginner series.

The quintessential beginner recommendation. This was the first manga I ever read, but it’s good enough that I recently bought the rest of the series so I can get caught up. Yotsuba herself is a complete gremlin and her exploits are consistently hilarious. A nice meta-benefit of the series is that, due to its popularity among beginners, the internet is full of explanations for every sentence in the first few volumes. One major drawback is that the manga has no legally-available ebook format, so if you don’t have a Japanese bookstore nearby, you’ll have to import from Japan.

Flying Witch (at コミックシーモア)
One of my personal favorite recommendations. A very laid-back series about a witch-in-training and her life in the countryside. Aside from a few instances of difficult dialect (which is played for laughs), it’s full of simple language and the characters are very charming. As the series goes on, the story picks up and the complexity of language slowly grows along with your progress.

少女終末旅行 (at コミックシーモア)
Slow-paced post-apocalypse existentialism with really nice art. Compared to other series in this list, this one is relatively light on dialogue, which can be a nice motivation boost since you can potentially get through it somewhat quickly. The anime also covers the first six volumes almost verbatim. The one major drawback of this series is that it has very little furigana, which can make looking up vocabulary a challenge.

ルリドラゴン (at コミックシーモア)
A fast-paced comedy manga about a half-dragon girl trying to adjust to school life after she grows horns and starts sneezing fire. It’s a pretty new series (only one volume out at the time of writing), so if you like being ahead of the curve then it might be one to check out.

ギャルと恐竜 (at コミックシーモア)
Gal wakes up and finds out she has a dinosaur roommate. Don’t think too hard about it. It’s a pretty simple gag manga without a lot of depth, but the dinosaur has good comedic reactions and aside from a bit of slang, the language is largely approachable.

むとうとさとう (at コミックシーモア)
Romantic comedy about a guy who wants to be manlier and a girl who wishes she was girlier, and their process of chasing their goals while also coming to appreciate themselves for who they are. The two main characters have a fun dynamic that avoids a lot of the tiresome tropes that are so common in this kind of story. A hidden gem with no (official) English translation.

Read something you’re familiar with

If you have a favorite anime (one you’ve watched with English subtitles), it can be extremely helpful to read the manga that the show itself was based on. This is a great way to ease into something that might otherwise be above your level. Being familiar with the story beats will help keep you from getting lost, and recognizing certain elements (e.g. names of characters and locations) can save you time that you might spend fruitlessly looking up words in a dictionary, only to discover that they aren’t “words” at all.

One thing I would caution against is trying to read both a Japanese and English version of the same material in parallel. In many case, translations will change the structure or meaning of sentences in order to provide the best experience. This is not a bad thing, but it does mean that translations are often unhelpful (and at worst, harmful) to someone trying to actually learn the original language. If you do want to say, re-read a manga series you’ve already read translated, try not to read them right after each other. You want your memory of the translated material to be fuzzy enough that you’re not relying on specific details to carry you through.

Find your domain

Once you find something you’re interested in, try to read other things that are similar. Once you’ve read one fantasy story, your next fantasy story will be much easier — but moving right on to a historical drama will feel like starting over at square one because the overlap in vocabulary will be pretty low.

Once you find a “domain” that you like, anything you read in that same domain will only be easier than what came before. This is true at both the micro and macro levels — it’s often referred to as the “first-few-pages problem”. Once you start getting comfortable with something, the rest is smooth sailing.

Step 3: Use the right mindset

There are two mistakes that beginners tend to make when reading Japanese:

  1. Treating Japanese as “English, but mixed up”

The fact that Japanese tends to put the verb at the end of the clause leads a lot of people to try reading it “backwards”, which is to say they start at the very end and move in reverse. I strongly recommend against this approach. It only really works with the most simple sentences, and it’s obviously no use whatsoever once you start trying to understand spoken language.

Instead, I recommend a mental model I call “working with slots”. Imagine that each verb has some number of slots for information to go in; for example, “eat” has a slot for “who is eating?”, “what will they eat?”, “when will it happen?”, and so on. As you read the sentence, the particles will tell you which slot each word goes in, and when you reach the verb, you can refer to the information you’ve gathered to tell you how exactly the action plays out.

  1. Translating into English

Once you’ve understood a sentence with the above approach, you may be tempted to try to resolve everything into a readable English sentence in order to prove that you understood it. Resist this instinct. Translation is a skill entirely separate from comprehension, and it’s entirely natural to be able to understand the meaning of a sentence without being able to re-render it in your native language. Even if you do intend to become a professional translator someday, you should first focus on understanding entirely in Japanese. Early on, translating will do nothing but slow you down.

Step 4: Read in multiple passes

Early on, it can be helpful to read the same material twice in a row:

  • First looking up everything you don’t understand
  • Then once again, relying on your short-term memory

This approach is pretty flexible and it’s up to you just how granular you go. At the very beginning, you might need to apply it to every sentence or speech bubble, but you can quickly move on to using it per-page, or even per-chapter. As you learn more words and your overall comprehension improves, you’ll need to do this less and less often, and at that point the effectiveness will fall off, at which point you should move on and leave it behind.

Incidentally, the approach I used to improve my listening comprehension uses this approach in reverse; first an uninterrupted watch-through of one full episode, then a review step after the fact.

Step 5: Don’t be afraid to ask for help

If you ever feel like you’re getting lost, remember that there are people out there who can help you. If you have a friend or family member who’s reading the same material as you are (even if they’re reading the translated version!), talk to them and compare notes; maybe you misunderstood some particular sentence and they can fill you in. Wikipedia summaries of anime episodes can help keep you following the plot even if a lot of the details go over your head. And of course, there are lots of communities out there full of people who will be happy to help you break down sentences you’re struggling with.

Step 6: Don’t give up!

Even if you do everything right, it’s going to be slow and difficult at first. As long as you keep at it and stay consistent, it will get easier. がんばって!