10 Tips for reading novels in Japanese(or any language)

Here are a few thoughts that I have about reading in general and some tips to make it easier for language learners to start reading or to find new books to read.  I think these ideas can apply to any language.  So if Japanese is not your target language, please just replace that word with your language of choice when reading this article.

1. In general, first person stories are a great place to start

There are first person books that have flowery descriptions and straight forward third person books. BUT in general, first person books have more dialog and breaks between descriptions which will make for an easier read. It will also give you more use able words to remember for everyday life.

2. Look up words that you do not know in the first two chapters

A lot of authors tend to repeat words tied to themes that the story touches on. Even if they don’t purposefully reuse words, there will be words tired to the environment and the story line that will pop up again and again as the story progresses. Reading intensively(i.e. looking up every word) can be tiring and burn you out. But if you put a bit of work into the beginning of the book, the later chapters will be much easier to read extensively(i.e. read for pleasure).

I use a mix of intensive reading and extensive reading and find that it works well for me.

3. Do not pick books based off of authors, their difficulty level can vary greatly

Once you find a book that you love, its tempting to want to buy everything else the author has written. But in my experience, there is usually not a consistent difficultly level for each author. Some of their books may be more literary then others. If possible, try to find place online where you can see the first few pages to get a feel for it.

For example, I heard that Gen Hoshino(星野源 )’s novel Working Man(働く男) was a good choice for beginners.  I picked up the books by the same author titled And so life goes on(そして生活はつづく) and found that I had difficulties to understanding the humor in the book due to not having enough familiarity with the cultural references to people who were/are famous in Japan. 

4. Have a few books around you to choose from

The more books that I have, the more likely I am to read. Sometimes I am just not in the mood for a particular type of story and having the freedom to choose from my small library make reading easier and more enjoyable.

If you really love a book despite of its difficulty level, its nice having other books as well so you can take a break with something easier to read once in a while.

5. Interest is more important then ease

If the book is boring, there isn’t going to be much that you can take away from it. Of course there are ways to change ones mind set to make stories interesting. But if that doesn’t work, its time to give up and find something new. The first book that I read to completion in Japanese had so many words that I didn’t know. They were specialized vocabulary that had to do with nature and forestry. It took a lot of time to look up each word, but I really loved it! It was way better and more educational then boring easy books that I gave up on. But again, some books are more difficult then others and its okay to just put them on your to read list and pick from easier choices that you are interested in.

Anyways, you do not have to start with children’s books or graded readers if you do not want to. Thinking about reading in Japanese is harder then actually reading in Japanese.

6. Try to stick with novels that were written in Japanese

This is something that I feel pretty strongly about. In order to be able to use the Japanese language well, you need to understand the culture. Every novel you read that was written for Japanese people in Japanese by a Japanese person has an insanely high value as a cultural education tool. If it is true that reading fiction increases empathy, just imagine how well you will start to understand the Japanese cultural mindset if you immerse yourself in Japanese novels. I find that my understanding of Japanese culture levels up with each book that I read.

While it can be a great start to read stories that you know well, maybe try to pick Japanese stories that you are familiar with in your native language. Sure, Harry Potter will help teach you kanji, but I feel like as a reader you might be missing out so much by not investing your time into Japanese stories.

7. Watch Japanese Media for 10-30 minutes before reading

I find that this tip helps me out with almost everything Japanese related.  If I watch Japanese TV before speaking in Japanese, my speech is better!  If I watch Japanese TV before studying, studying becomes easier!  Basically I find that even just watching a short youtube clips gets my mind into the Japanese mind set.  Even just a few minutes makes a huge difference.  Think of it as a warm up before exercising.

8. Start small

Finishing a complete book is a great feeling, especially in the beginning.  Its much easier to finish a book if it is shorter.  It may seem obvious, but I don’t think it is always on peoples mind when they are picking out novels.  For example, I think a lot of people like to start out with books like Harry Potter… and those books are huge!  There are lots of shorter books out there.  I think starting small will help learners feel less overwhelmed and more accomplished.

9. If the book review is easy to understand, there is a good chance that the book is easy to understand

This is still an idea that I am exploring, but I have been finding it to be true for me.  If you look on a peer review site such as bookmeter, the more literary the book, the more literary the review.  I am finding that there is a correlation between how easy I find the reviews are to read and how easy the book is for me to read.  Of course when you are driving into new topics or genres there will be vocabulary challenge, but I still think there might be some truth in this idea.

10. Only read novels if you want to

There are lots of different reading materials out there. If you like manga better, then read that! Having an enjoyable experience is the most important part. There are blogs, new sites, subtitles on TV shows… so many options out there.

If you are not a fan of book in general, then you don’t have to force yourself to pick one up in the name of reading.

Author: Kuri

I love reading Japanese novels and have seen that many people want to read them but don't know where to start. I have decided to share my experiences to help people reach their literacy goals.

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