If you're learning Japanese, you have a lot to think about. From mastering spoken language to boosting listening comprehension and practicing both reading and writing, understanding what’s happening in a foreign tongue can be a real challenge.
Most people turn to textbooks and study sessions to improve their reading skills. But don’t forget that one of the most powerful tools at your disposal for learning any language is immersion!
As babies, humans are equipped to learn everything that they need to know about language by just…existing in it. It’s flying all around them, and they don’t necessarily understand everything that’s happening—and that works.
We don’t entirely lose that ability as we get older. So immersing yourself into the Japanese language is one of the most effective ways to absorb and retain new information. You’ll get to see it in active use, not isolated into a vocabulary list.
Knowing that, consider what role authentic Japanese books could have on your learning. From novels to manga, some books are better than others for those who are just starting out learning Japanese.
By the way, if you're getting started in Japanese and want to get to conversational level fast, check out my story-based beginner course, Japanese Uncovered.
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Learn Japanese By Book: Why Practice Reading?
One question that comes up among some learners is why bother to practice reading at all?
With everything from audiobooks to online news reports available nowadays, you may assume that you don’t need to extend yourself any further than learning basic hiragana and katakana to assist you in reading street signs and menus. Why not just read an English translation of any book that interests you?
Well, the reason is manyfold. First, reading exposes you to Japanese in its natural state. Few things can teach your brain the role and nuance of a word or phrase like seeing it in use. Second, reading uses a part of the brain devoted to data processing. This area has already been refined for you in English or your native language. And you can develop it in Japanese, too.
As you begin to read in Japanese, you will need to pay careful attention to all the details of every word or kanji in order to glean meaning. As you progress, your brain will become accustomed to some of the most common features of Japanese.
And you will begin to read faster and with greater comprehension. This is when reading will become more pleasant—when you can begin to gloss over small details because they are familiar. Cultivating this talent takes time but will make your Japanese skills all-around faster and more robust.
Top Reading Material In Japanese
The type of reading material that you select in Japanese will depend upon a variety of factors. For instance
- How much Japanese vocabulary do you already know?
- Can you read kanji?
In general, consider a mixture of media. For example, books that include pictures or manga, to help orient and contextualize what you are reading while you practice. Books intended for a younger audience can help too.
Don’t forget that especially as you just get started, reading only one or two pages can be enough! Set an achievable pace that won’t burn you out.
#1 神の子どもたちはみな踊る (After The Quake) by 村上春樹 (Haruki Murakami)
You may be familiar with this book by esteemed Japanese author Haruki Murakami under the English title After the Quake. But it’s a steep departure from his more surreal texts. And a great place to delve into Japanese culture as a whole.
What makes this an appealing book to attempt is that it has a widely available English translated printing. If you examine the Japanese text and find that it’s too far out of reach right now, you can begin by reading the English version. This is still one of the most important modern novels in Japan.
If you’d like to attempt the Japanese version of the novel, especially because you have an interest in getting at least one Murakami book under your belt, this one is a good place to start.
It is much more accessible not only in its content but in its tone. While Murakami is notorious for creating dreamlike, disjointed narratives, this one is much more grounded in the day to day lives of regular people and sports a colloquial tone.
#2 キッチン (Kitchen) by 吉本ばなな (Banana Yoshimoto)
Another book that you can also find in English, Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto is perhaps equally as famous as Murakami’s books.
Like After the Quake, you can begin by tackling the book in English to grasp the finer details of the plot, which focuses on a young woman’s life after her grandparents pass away. Then, you can return to the Japanese version and give it an attempt.
Like After the Quake, Kitchen is full of daily life vocabulary that makes it accessible despite its status as a full-length novel.
Occasional complex vocabulary surrounding grief and psychology may appear. But the general tone of the book is an accessible look into the mind of an average person.
#3 魔女の宅急便 (Kiki's Delivery Service) by 角野 栄子 (Eiko Kadono)
If you are finding that the previous two books—which are staples of modern Japanese writing—are too challenging in their Japanese form, consider a book that is geared more toward JLPT N4 and N3 learners: Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono.
What makes this book particularly appealing is that you may have already seen the Studio Ghibli adaptation of the story. This makes it digestible and gives you an easy to understand reference when you get stuck.
Another benefit of Kiki’s Delivery Service is that it is remarkably simple to read. A combination of easy to understand words and dialogue spoken through the voice of a child (Kiki) create a type of text that is nuanced but accessible.
And the structure of the book itself lends to new readers as well. Each chapter serving as a sort of self-contained story within the overarching theme of Kiki’s life. This means that you will not find yourself getting more and more lost as the story goes on and small details are missed. Each chapter almost stands on its own.
#4 よつばと (Yotsuba)
If you’re not ready to tackle books just yet, manga and graded readers are a great option.
Few manga come to mind as more suitable for early beginners than Yotsuba, which documents a child who experiences everyday problems and learns to solve them.
It is highly accessible in both its language and word choice, with plentiful hiragana and a wide range of printed issues to choose from.
Don’t be deceived by its seemingly childish topic; Yotsuba is one of the best manga for new readers to start with.
#5 しろくまカフェ (Shirokuma Café)
It’s almost impossible not to recommend Shirokuma Café, or Polar Bear Café, on a list of the best books for Japanese learners.
Imagine the type of easy, casual language that must be present in a manga about a polar bear who spends lazy days running his own café and chatting with his friends.
This unexpectedly but completely charming manga is extremely easy to get into, both story-wise and in terms of Japanese language skill.
And can serve as a springboard for diving into more complex texts later.
#6 30-Day Mastery: Kanji & Adjectives And Adverbs
Native speakers don’t learn grammar with rules or kanji with flashcards, and neither should you. This series helps you master difficult Japanese language points naturally through story, even if you’ve tried and failed in the past.
Try our innovative story-based method for 30 days, and you’ll be amazed as your brain develops a natural, instinctive understanding of the grammar. At last, you’ll learn to think like a native and speak Japanese with confidence!
- Master Japanese naturally through story
- Short chapters of 300 words each – just read one chapter a day for 30 days!
- Includes furigana so you can quickly understand difficult kanji characters and hiragana transcriptions of difficult Kanji characters.
- Learn language concepts in context and at your level
- Quick-reference guide explains the key points so you can easily notice them in the story
- Short daily exercises to practice the grammar as you go
- Bilingual word lists to quickly look up new vocabulary
Should You Use Furigana Or Not When Your Read In Japanese?
Yes, the age-old question: if you’re going to read something in Japanese, should you read text that has furigana? Furigana, the small hiragana that appear above kanji, assist you with how to read the kanji.
Some people find them helpful, while others view them as a crutch that prevents you from ever needing to learn the readings of kanji from memory.
Especially when you are just starting out, consider taking advantage of furigana to become familiar with words and practice your hiragana reading. As you advance in your reading ability, you can graduate into texts that use less furigana.
However, many novels will still rely on furigana from time to time as uncommon words are introduced; using furigana is nothing to be ashamed of.
Learn Japanese Book: Wrapping Up
As you consider which books to pick up to start your journey into reading Japanese, remember that you can only learn so much from a textbook.
Embrace immersion, even when it may seem overwhelming, and keep reading at a pace that works for you. You don’t need to read an entire Japanese novel in a weekend—or even a month.
Take advantage of manga and graded readers to ease your way into more advanced texts. And you’ll be reading Japanese quickly and effortlessly in no time!