Top 15 Tips to Improve Japanese Reading

By Tyson

Do you still believe reading Japanese is difficult? It's a myth. There are many ways to improve your reading skills and enjoy Japanese reading. You do not have to be an advanced Japanese language learner to start reading in Japanese. There are many excellent materials for Japanese reading, whether you are beginner, intermediate or advanced level. Are you looking for how to improve your Japanese reading abilities? Well, you came to the right page! Here are the ultimate 15 tips for you to master your Japanese reading! 

This article is a subsection of our Self-study Guides for Students.

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    Japanese Reading Tip 1: Make reading a habit

    Did you know it takes around 21 days to form a new habit? Yes, you heard me right! Making Japanese reading a habitual event can boost your reading skills and better language understanding, increase vocabulary and grammar variety, and improve writing and speaking skills. Reading is an essential tool to master learning a foreign language.

    Making reading a new hobby will need some will, persistence, and motivation. From my experience, I find setting a reminder on the phone or putting a sticky note on top of your laptop with a message like "Read a book for 30 minutes" or "Read 5-10 pages!" is the most effective way to start your new habit.  Also important to note is finding the best time for you to study and set the right goal.

    Developing the plan can help you to track your improvements and achievements.  You can either keep a diary or use apps to follow the reading achievements. If you are not a big reading enthusiast, do not set a goal to read 50 or 100 pages a day. You will probably get tired or annoyed and eventually quit reading. Your goal can be as simple as reading for 15 minutes or 1-page text. 

    Japanese Reading Tip 2: Get familiar with Japanese reading structure

    You have purchased some Japanese novels and manga, but you do not know how to read them? Well, Japanese books can be written in two ways. One is the same as English books: left-to-right then top-to-bottom. 

    Another way is vertical writing (tategaki) is considered to be a  traditional way of Japanese essays. How to read the vertical writing? If you want to read a novel in tategaki, start reading from the top right, move to the bottom, and then move to the next line. So you will read it from top-to-bottom and then right-to-left. It can be confusing initially, but you will get used to it once you read more books in tategaki

    A similar rule follows when you read manga! You should start with the top-right image, then top-left, and lastly, move to the last bottom images from right-to-left. Check out the images below:

    horizontal Japanese book
    Vertical Japanese reading
    Reading Japanese manga

    Japanese Reading Tip 3: Read according to your level

    It is a widespread mistake when a student tries to read complicated readings like Japanese newspapers or academic papers. Try to find a book that matches your level. Also, note if you are intermediate or higher level, do not read easy books because you simply will not see any improvements in a language. 

    Now, you would ask me: "How can I determine my Japanese language level?" You can try to self-evaluate your abilities by this chart. Also, you can try to answer sample JLPT questions and find out what your level is. Once you find out your Japanese level, you can find reading material that matches your level. Here is the list of some readings you might like:


    Beginner level

    I suggest you start reading some books for children, adapted reading texts from textbooks (e.g., Genki or Minna no Nihongo), web magazines, and manga.


    Intermediate level 

    You will understand more Japanese in this stage, but you could still have problems with reading material written for native speakers. You can read Japanese texts in textbooks, but you can try to read manga, newspaper articles, or novels if you are looking for extra readings.

    If you want to try reading recent Japanese news, you can try to read  NHK News Japan Web Easy written in simple Japanese. Also, you can try to read Japanese newspapers for kids, Asahi Kodomo Shinbun. There are not many articles for free, but you can subscribe to them if you enjoy this newspaper. Also, there are three different levels of the readings, so choose the appropriate level.


    Advanced level

    You are at your final destination! You can read some newspaper articles or books written for native speakers!  If you are not the type of person who enjoys long books and gets bored quickly, you can read concise fiction stories such as those written by Shinichi Hoshi. The name of his series of books is ショートショートセレクション(shyo-to shyo-to serekushyon). His fiction stories usually do not go beyond 5-10 pages long. It is an exciting story with a thrilling twist at the end. If you are preparing for the JLPT N2, you will find much N2 grammar and kanji. You can purchase books on Amazon


    All levels

    If you still cannot find what you want to read, try to read graded reader books. Whether you are elementary or intermediate level, you will be able to find a book that you will like! Also, it is easier to track your improvements in your Japanese. Once you feel comfortable with level 1, you can move to level 2 and so on. Here is the list of graded reader publishers:

    - Tadoku

    - White Rabbit Press

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    Japanese book page on katakana

    Japanese Reading Tip 4: Have a good dictionary

    You have to have a good dictionary! Do not rely on Google Translate. Sometimes Google Translate can give a wrong translation and can be very confusing. Many foreigners who visited Japan and used Google Translate had faced this problem because Japanese is built differently from English. 


    I suggest you use trusted dictionary books, electronic dictionaries, or mobile apps. You probably do not want to hold a heavy dictionary or purchase a pricy gadget. Mobile apps can be more practical. You can use apps like The Wisdom Japanese-English Dictionary or Oxford Collocations Dictionary. If you are an intermediate or advanced level, I suggest you have a Japanese-Japanese dictionary: Reikai Gakushuu Kokugogiten


    Also, I would suggest you have specialized Japanese dictionaries. Here is a list of two dictionaries I can personally vouch for:


    Japanese Grammar Dictionaries: Handbook of Japanese Grammar Patterns, Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar, and Dictionary of Intermediate Grammar


    Kanji Dictionaries: Kanji Dictionary for foreigners learning Japanese, The Kanji Handbook,  and Kanji Dictionary for Japanese elementary school students.


    Japanese Reading Tip 5: Improve your reading speed

    To start reading smoothly, you have to improve your reading speed. If you are a beginner, avoid reading with Romaji. Romaji will not improve your Japanese. Instead, it makes it worse. You should strengthen your hiragana and katakana and start learning kanji. Kanji can be a nightmare, but there are useful tips on how to learn them. Also, I find it easier to read text with kanji rather than all hiragana/katakana sentences. In Japanese, there are no spaces between words like in English, making it hard to distinguish where the beginning and the end of the term are. Kanji will visually help you to separate the words in the sentence, for example:

    (1) この花は美しいです。

    (2) このはなはうつくしいです。

    kono hana wa utsukushii desu

    This flower is beautiful.

    Do you notice the difference between sentences 1 and 2? It is much easier to read with Kanji! Furthermore, get familiar with Japanese sentence structure. You will see that it is opposite to English, so try to learn some basic grammar. You should be able to know basic grammar to understand the elementary level readings. 

    Vocabulary Japanese dictionary grammar

    Japanese Reading Tip 6: Improve your vocabulary and grammar

    You cannot improve your reading skills without learning vocabulary and grammar. You will stay at the same level without building new words and grammatical structures. Also, it is beneficial not only for reading skills but for writing and speaking. It is a fundamental step when you learn a language. Make another habit like learning 7-10 words every day, and your vocabulary will drastically rise. One of my tips is to learn words with synonyms and antonyms. Also, you could consider writing down all unknown vocabulary from the readings and learn them. You could also make sentences with the new words. I find this technique easier to memorize terms. You can read more information on how to improve in vocabulary in the Top 15 Japanese Vocabulary Tips

    Same as with grammar, you have to learn more structures so that you will be able to understand and express yourself better in the Japanese language. When you study new grammatical structures, write down sample sentences and utilize grammar in your conversation. Also, you can practice grammar using workbooks and textbooks. 

    Japanese Reading Tip 7: Read three times

    When I was learning Japanese, I used this reading technique three times to improve my Japanese fluency and Japanese pronunciation. The method has three steps. The first step is to look through the passages, and you can see how the sentences are structures, circle unknown words, and look for kanji readings. I find it easier to work with paper-based books because I can circle words and write down kanji and translations’ hiragana meaning. Then read aloud paragraphs one by one. It is important to read aloud because it helps to improve pronunciation and fluency overall. Also, I find it easier to concentrate when I read aloud. After that, look for the grammar and vocabulary you do not know. Go through every part of the reading. Once you are done reading passages, read the entire essay. 

    Start reading short stories at the beginning. My suggestion is to start with Japanese fairy tales (むかしばなし mukashi banashi). It can be easier to concentrate on the short passages rather than long ones. 

    Japanese Reading

    Japanese Reading Tip 8: Shadowing reading

    Another way to approach reading is shadowing. Shadowing is the technique that you listen to the audio while reading. There are many variations of how to do it. I find it more effective when I listen to the audio without actually reading for the first time. It helps with listening comprehension. Then I would listen to the audio one more time, but also simultaneously reading. I would make stops and relisten to the hard words to pronounce and write down the kanji readings. Again, you can take another approach, like listening to one sentence and then read it aloud. It will help to improve your pronunciation. If you are a beginner, I suggest you start with this read-along story "The Miser and the Gold,"  or the readings in your textbook. 


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    Japanese Reading Tip 9: Watch Japanese movies or anime with subtitles

    Try to watch Japanese movies or anime with subtitles. There are many ways to do it. If you are a beginner, I suggest you watch anime for children, for example, Doraemon. You can first watch with English subtitles and then rewatch it with Japanese subtitles. Also, there are many Youtube videos with explanations of phrases and grammar used in anime. If you feel confident in understanding Japanese, try to watch anime and movies with Japanese subtitles. You can pause a video, check the unknown vocabulary and grammar, and write it down in your notebook. Furthermore, if you do not understand some phrases, look for the video explanations on Youtube. 


    Japanese Reading Tip 10: Try to use reading apps

    There are plenty of digital tools that can help you learn the Japanese language. My absolute favorite reading tool is Japanese i.o. The Japanese i.o. is a website that works as a document reader. You can copy and paste a text into the reader. The program will add hiragana reading for kanji and translation for the words. Another cool feature is statistics. It shows how many times did you look up the words and what the words were. Also, it is free of charge!

    Japanese i.o. reading

    My second favorite app is Rikaikun. It is similar to the previous tool, but it is mainly for translating websites. You can hover over the unknown words, and it will show you hiragana reading and translation.  You should use the Google Chrome browser to use it. Once you download Rikaikun, you can read Japanese websites without any issues! 

    The last app is FluentU, which is learning a language through watching videos. You can find any kind of video, movie, or music video in the Japanese language with English translations. If you consider learning through movies or anime (see, Tip 9), this app is what you need! There are several subscription plans, but you can get a free trial anytime for 14 days!

    Want to know more? Check out our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Learning Apps!

    Japanese Reading Tip 11: JLPT reading books practice

    Do you want to know your Japanese language proficiency level in the future? You can consider taking JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test). If you plan to move to Japan, you might need it for studying at university or for work purposes. The exam has five levels, where level 5 is the beginner, and level 1 is the advanced user. The JLPT consists of reading, grammar, vocabulary, and listening parts. That's why it is crucial to have good reading skills. 

    How can you practice? You can purchase a few books in the JLPT Reading section. I like to practice for the JLPT Reading section because I can answer comprehension questions and see if I understand the passage or not. It is crucial to see how good your understanding is. You can always go back to the problem and find the answer in the text. Also, readings are short, but they have plenty of vocabulary and grammar that you can learn. 

    Japanese interesting book

    Japanese Reading Tip 12: Read according to your interest

    Do you feel bored when reading long-winded passages from textbooks? I understand that feeling completely. Sometimes books provide very boring readings that you are unwilling to read. It can demotivate you until you quite frankly start to hate reading. I experienced this in my early days. When I was a child, parents would force me to read some uninteresting books that would make me hate reading, so do not force yourself to read what you do not like. Trust me, your comprehension of the material will be better if you are interested in the book. 

    Find out what reading genre you like. Some people enjoy reading manga, but I do not find it entertaining. The reason is that manga usually has several volumes. I like reading short fiction stories or news articles. Check out the suggested books in Tip 3. 


    Japanese Reading Tip 13: Sign for Japanese book club

    You can try to sign up for the Japanese book club or reading class. There are dozens of Japanese book clubs for foreigners in Japan and overseas. Try to find the book club nearby your home, or you can also look for the online book club or forum. Also, you could join the Japanese reading class. You will find people who will have some interest so that you will discuss it more. Furthermore, you will be more motivated to read as you will have to attend discussions upon your readings. Some Japanese book clubs have Japanese native speakers to help foreigners and answer all their questions. 


    Talking Japanese friend

    Japanese Reading Tip 14: Ask questions

    There is nothing wrong with asking questions. Do not hesitate to ask questions to Japanese native speakers. Textbooks do not have answers to all of your questions. Sometimes the textbook explanation is not just enough to understand. Usually, textbooks will focus more on the formal style of speech rather than the informal. Most students face problems with conversational style because of a lack of practice. Ask questions! Try to ask questions to your Japanese friend. However, it can be challenging for a native speaker to explain some grammatical points. In my experience, some of my Japanese friends could not explain to me the difference between some Japanese grammar points. As you might already know, some grammar and vocabulary can have similar meanings, but there are minor differences that only native speakers can feel. Some of the examples are Japanese linking words: ついに (tsui ni), やっと(yatto), とうとう(toutou). These three words have the same meaning at last. Nevertheless, there is a difference between these words. In this case, consider asking a professional Japanese language teacher to help you understand the difference between grammar structures. 


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    Japanese Reading Tip 15: Take Japanese language courses

    Consider taking a Japanese language course. Learning a language by yourself can sound impossible to some people. Learning a language with a teacher is the best choice because students show better understanding and knowledge of the material than students who spend the same time self-studying.  The teacher can correct your pronunciation and grammar mistakes and explain your material in a better way. If you consider taking group classes, you will be more motivated to study due to the psychological effect. Don’t know where to take classes? Consider taking either offline or online Japanese lessons at Japan Switch! You have many choices about how to study! You can take in-person classes or online classes, in a group or private! The school has a lot of professional Japanese teachers that are passionate about teaching.

    Also, Japan Switch provides a free level check and consultation. If you are interested, send them a contact form, and they will reply to you shortly! 


    Japanese reading book

    Final Thoughts

    I hope you can find something that will work for you and help you get your reading to pro speed! I had used these tips myself, and I had noticed how my reading skills improved. One of my top favorite tips is shadowing or watching Japanese movies with subtitles. Do not give up on Japanese reading in the early stages. Unfortunately, many beginner students believe Japanese task can be difficult and almost impossible, but they are looking at the challenge the wrong way. There are many ways to start reading in Japanese, especially if you are a beginner! 


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