Updated: Oct 3, 2019
When I first started learning my other languages I immediately started diving into easy novels to improve my skills. However, when I started learning Japanese this strategy didn't really seem all that feasible anymore because of the terrifying script. In this blog post I'm going to describe just how I went about choosing my reading material.
Choose something for young children
When I first picked up a book in Japanese I realised pretty quickly that I wouldn't be able to read it anytime soon. There were so many characters that I didn't recognise and I had been pretty lazy when it came to learning to read katakana and hiragana (I relied too heavily on romaji at the beginning, which I sincerely regret now!). I almost gave up on the idea of ever learning enough to read a novel, which was very disheartening to me since reading is such an integral part of how I pick up words. This all changed when I moved to Japan and I realised after a short while that a number of children's books had furigana. Furigana is a helpful way to teach children to read the dreaded kanji. They are basically hiragana which sit above the kanji so the reader can understand immediately how it's pronounced without having to bother their parents every twenty seconds.
These furigana make reading sooooo much easier. So, once I discovered this my next task was to find something that I wanted to read. I decided first of all on the novelisation of the movie "Inside Out" from Pixar. This was a movie that I really enjoyed and I thought that the novelisation would prove easy enough to read. I found myself at a local BookOff, which is an unironically named second-hand bookstore found in many cities in Japan. The store near me had a fairly large children's section and there were a number of novelisations of Disney movies (Disney is huge here). I skipped home with my new passion project and began reading.
The book proved to be considerably more difficult that I first imaged. I had to look up a significant number of words and I was left a little confused by quite a few longer sentences. This was mainly due to the fact that I hadn't quite got used to the inverted sentence structure. What's more, a number of words that should have been written with kanjis were not, they were written in plain hiragana. This may seem like an improvement but it actually made the text quite confusing to look at. In Japanese the text is not broken up like in English. There are no spaces between the words and usually the kanjis help break up a long line of hiragana characters.
All that being said I persevered through the book and eventually finished the whole story. I picked up so many useful words and phrases as well as a better understanding of the sentence structure of Japanese.
Once I had completed my first book I was eager to try another. I had already looked at Harry Potter in Japanese and I really wanted to try it, but there were just so many characters that I didn't know and there weren't enough furigana to help me to read it. I very nearly gave up until I found out that there is another version of the books.
The book is the picture is not the one you will find in most often, but it shoudl be in most kids' sections in larger book shops. They are smaller than the average Harry Potter book and they are split up into several parts. The image above is from the first book and in total there are two japanese books for "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" and I think there are about three or four books for "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire". While this may seem a little expensive and annoying I must say that these books were a godsend. I could finally read a book that I already knew very well, all while improving my Japanese! Having found this I really knuckled down and soldiered my way through "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban". Thought reading these books I could really improve my reading comprehension and vocabulary.
In addition to Harry Potter I would recommend reading manga (yeah, I know it's obvious). The manga I really enjoyed as a beginner were the Detective Conan series (otherwise known as Case Closed in the US). These stories were interesting and they had the absolutely necessary furigana. I would strongly advise you to NOT read One Piece. This may be a really popular manga, but the vocabulary that is in it is more or less useless. Conan does also have some useless words but it is at least set in the real world. One Piece is far too removed from reality to give you many useful turns of phrase and vocabulary that you could use in everyday life. I realise that Harry Potter also has fantastical elements, but there are significant portions of the books where that is not important and the characters are communicating just like normal teenagers.
Find an accompanying audiobook
Having discovered Harry Potter I began to realise that reading alone wouldn't help me to improve my all round skills. I needed to improve my listening skills as well. To do this I logged onto Audible https://www.audible.co.jp/ and I searched for the Harry Potter series. I downloaded the fourth in the series and began listening while I read. This was also a great help as it forced me to take in the words faster and process as much of the text without relying too heavily on the dictionary for translations. I was also able to hear a native Japanese speaker bring life to the text and this also really helps to understand the meaning of the dialogue. Giving yourself more context really allows you to anchor the meaning of new words into your head as they quickly become associated with a sound as well as a visual cue.
I would also recommend listening to an audiobook while reading more difficult novels because it also gives you the correct reading of an unknown kanji, potentially saving you many hours of dead-end searches.
While reading novels is useful sometimes you want to read something a little bit more informative. This is where the app Imiwa is really useful http://www.imiwaapp.com/ . This is by far the best dictionary for Japanese that I have seen. What's more it's completely FREEEEEEEEE! I'm a tight-fisted git so this is perfect for me. With this app you can copy a paragraph from japanese wikipedia and paste it into the "analyser" in the Imiwa app. The analyser then gives the readings of all the kanji and their meanings. This is great for reading news articles on your phone or looking at japanese websites.
The best thing about imiwa is that it gives you a translation of a word in english and also some example sentences to show you how it's used! This is great because sometimes the japanese word doesn't translate directly to an english word, so it's great to have some context. The sentences are taken from the sentence compendium from https://tatoeba.org/eng/, which is also a really great resource.
There are also a number of other features that I haven't really tried out, but I have heard from other people that it can be really useful for practising and looking up kanji, too!
Google Translate is your friend
I know that as a language teacher I should loathe Google Translate, but I have to admit that it does have its uses. I occasionally encounter kanji in more advanced books which don't have the furigana above them. This is where Google Translate can be really helpful. This might sound cumbersome...and it is, but you can take a picture of the text and Google Translate will read the kanji for you by putting it into romaji. This can be really helpful when you are absolutely stuck. Like I am on many occasions! This can get tedious quite quickly though, so try to avoid relying too heavily on this tactic to read more complex novels.
Using Netflix or other streaming services have also been really useful for me because I can add the subtitles to everything I'm watching. For Japanese shows the subtitles match exactly what is said on screen. This is why it's much better to watch a japanese show with japanese subtitles because the english subtitles will most likely be so different that your brain will shut out the more complicated japanese and focus in solely on the english. It's also a good idea to have the japanese subtitles because you will have the kanji on the screen too. This will allow you to get more and more used to the kanji in different situations and contexts. Not only that, you will have the visual cues of the image on screen to really reinforce the meaning of the text and sounds. I strongly recommend this even though it may seen difficult at first. I would recommend watching some detective shows because they will at least hold your attention. My TV show of choice is "Young Kindaichi" and also more recently "The laughing Salesman" which is a truly bizarre and strangely intriguing show. It's not for the faint hearted though! It can get quite dark. I would also recommend "Detective Conan" if you can get your hands on it. Strangely it doesn't seem to be available on the japanese version of Netflix...
After all my efforts, I can safely say that my Japanese really is progressing now, and I am picking up vocabulary more easily than I was at the beginning. So, to all the beginners out there: "don't give up!". Find something that you will enjoy reading and stick with it. It will seem long and laborious at first, but eventually you will start to retain more and more of what you read and see. You just have you see the kanji as much as possible and in as many different contexts as possible. Don't despair and keep at it!