Top 10 Reasons Reading in Japanese is Cool

JLPT Reading PracticeReading is one of the least glamorous language skills. It really doesn’t get the fame and fortune that speaking and listening does. There is something about opening a book and I mean a real book not manga, that just doesn’t set a person’s world on fire.

Reading is often kicked to the side like a dusty pair of tennis shoes left to waste away in the bottom of your closet.

But, it can come in handy and it is an essential part of the higher levels of the JLPT. It doesn’t have to be boring. You can actually learn a lot by reading through a few books. Some people say that if you read 10 good-sized books in a foreign language, you’ve got it mastered.

So, why read in a foreign language? Well, I’m glad you asked because I have ten good reasons.

10) You can read anywhere

You can take a book on the train, plane or automobile. They are portable, and believe it or not, don’t require batteries to operate. All you need is a bookmark and you are ready to go.
As a matter of fact, most Japanese books are designed to be extremely portable. Either they are shrunk down to be crammed into a bag or purse, or they are split into two volumes (上・下). This is because a lot of people in Japan read on the train where giant Stephen King novels are not always handy to have.

9) You can kill two birds with one stone

There is a wide variety of books available out there. So why not combine another hobby with your Japanese? Do you like golfing? Pick up a book about golfing in Japanese. How about travel? Instead of picking up a travel guide in English, why not one in Japanese?

8) A sense of accomplishment

Books can range from 100 pages to 1000 pages and there is nothing like that feeling when you finally reach the end of a good book. Reading books can give you a visual benchmark of how much studying you are doing. This may not be for everyone, but it might help you stay motivated.

7) They are a pretty cheap resource

You can pick up books at recycle shops for as little as 100 yen. If you are outside of Japan, it might be a little more difficult to pick up books at a reasonable price, but they can still be quite reasonable compared to a study book. If you have friends that are about your level, you can even create a mini-exchange for your books.

6) There are plenty of tools to help you read

If you are reading online you can use Rikaichan and Furigana Injector to help you read text online quite easily. This makes it a lot easier than having to stop and look up every word you don’t know. You can zip through an article without too much trouble.

5) Portable dictionaries make it easy to look up words

Most electronic dictionaries allow you to look up words by doing your best to write the kanji on their touch screens. The iPhone has a great free app called Imi wa? that you can use the Chinese keyboard with to write in kanji or if that doesn’t work, you can use the multiradical look up. If your an Android user, I’ve heard Aedict is pretty good and free as well.

4) You can ‘rewind’ easily

If you miss something while you are reading, you can always go back and re-read it. You can also underline the passage, so that you can ask your teacher, tutor, or Japanese friend about it later. You don’t have to bother writing it down and getting it mixed up.

3) You can read at your own pace

You control the speed of your reading, so you can read as fast or as slow as you want. This gives reading a bit of an advantage over listening because if you stumble upon a particularly difficult section of the text you can slow down and work out the meaning of the sentences, which can be close to impossible with listening.

2) You can take notes

When reading a book, you can take notes in the margin about the words you don’t know or new phrases that you learned. Interacting with the text (even if it’s just to write something down) helps you to comprehend and retain the information better. If you are reading online, you can use a FireFox Add-on like Floatnotes to do basically the same thing.

1) You can use reading to practice other skills at the same time

If you read out loud, you can practice speaking and even listening while you are reading. This seems like something so simple, but it really does work, and it helps you to retain the information you are reading. Think about it, you are reading, so you are seeing the word, you are saying the word, so you are practicing speaking, and you are hearing yourself say the word, so you are practicing listening.

I would recommend practicing reading silently though, for the test. Reading out loud will slow down your reading speed, and you’ll need pretty fast reading speed to make it through the N3, N2, and N1 reading sections. Also, you’ll probably get thrown out if you are talking during the reading section of the test.

So, that’s it. Your 3rd grade English teacher wasn’t lying to you. Reading can actually be quite useful. Actual cool people are reading things every day. So, why don’t you join them? I think you’ll find that it is a great way to learn a foreign language if you are at the intermediate or advanced level. But, what do you think? What kind of books do you find useful?

{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Blue Shoe June 9, 2011, 7:10 am

    People? Reading? What a novel idea! =D

    But seriously, I agree wholeheartedly. While different people have various reason and goals for studying Japanese, I think the language is best approached and most easily learned when you try to improve each of the 4 elements: reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

    #8 is definitely my #1. I remember when it took me ages to read a single page of a book in Japanese and manga was a struggle. I’m still not a quick reader, but depending on the content I can usually get by fairly well. Noting that improvement feels really good.

    And personally I’ve always loved to read. I can spend hours at a bookstore or library, and for that reason bookstores in Japan have been really frustrating for me; seeing all these interesting-looking books that are mostly inaccessible. As my Japanese reading ability has improved, this has slowly changed for me. Great feeling.

    Nice post, Mac.

    • Mac June 15, 2011, 12:22 am

      I can totally relate to the feeling of accomplishment when finishing a book. I’ve heard that from a lot of people. It may sound strange too, but I think I can read faster in Japanese because of the kanji (at least when I can recognize them all). I guess there is no way to really prove what is more efficient way of getting information into your head, but I think kanji seems to help a lot with meanings.

      I’ve always been a terrible reader to be honest. I prefer to listen to audiobooks over reading, unfortunately audiobooks haven’t really caught on in Japan. We can only hope right?

      • Isaura February 6, 2013, 4:54 am

        Yes, Kanji seems to help a lot with meanings:))

  • Russell January 7, 2013, 3:59 am

    Hey Mac, what would you suggest someone read that is at the N5ish level?

    • Clayton MacKnight January 7, 2013, 3:10 pm

      Children’s books are great sources for this. They are still pretty difficult though, even the most basic ones because there are a lot of sound words.

      Another option are graded readers. That particular volume has some good stories, like Urashima Taro (a classic Japanese folk tale) and the story of Hachi, which is a famous dog of Tokyo. There is even a statue of him at Shibuya station!

      I worked my through 2 or 3 volumes of these. They were a big help because they are specifically written for learners. But, admittedly a little pricey. I think the sooner you go native the better, so the children’s books, even though they are incredibly difficult, could help you out. The graded readers are really handy because they have the audio book with them as well, so you can review on the go.

      • Russell January 7, 2013, 3:27 pm

        Thanks Mac. Graded readers, that is an excellent suggestion that I had never heard of. I tried the children’s books before and it was extremely hard for me still. Definitely going to give graded readers a try.

  • Ytter February 11, 2014, 4:55 pm

    A suggestion for reading above-your-level: scan a chapter or so of a book and save the pages as html files. Then open the pages in Firefox and click on the orange fish for the Globefish add-on at the bottom of the page. This will give you a Google-translation of anything you highlight in the text. Google translations from Japanese seem to be worse than for other languages, especially for more than a phrase or so, but if all you need is individual words, this can be a big help. And since you’ve got the text in electronic form, it’s easy to add JA-EN pairs to your SRS. The first chapter of any book is apt to be the most difficult (new vocabulary that will probably be repeated throughout the book, and in novels an author showing how fine a writer he is), so it’s worth rereading the chapters until it starts to get easy. Then you can take the physical book to the park or the subway and simply read for entertainment.

    • Clayton MacKnight February 13, 2014, 2:21 am

      Great idea! So does globefish do Japanese OCR? How do you extract the Japanese sentences? manually?

      • Ytter February 13, 2014, 3:11 am

        Getting the Japanese from a book (etc.) needs a scanner – for example, the one on the printer-fax-scanner or (someday) one of those pen things. Globefish then treats the resulting html file like anything in Firefox. (There may be add-ons or apps for other browsers, I just don’t know.) There are iPhone apps that will give you a translation of anything in Japanese you can photograph, and it may be possible to use that somehow – my phone isn’t so smart, I don’t know.

        Globefish is just an app that puts a Google Translation in a convenient location, right at the bottom of the page you’re reading. This makes reading a foreign language online not only possible, but fairly convenient. Perapera offers much more detailed information, but it seems like overkill when all you want is a one-word equivalent. Of course, once you’ve scanned text from a book etc. into an html file, you can use Perapera on it if you want, and not bother with Globefish, although sometimes it’s helpful with longer phrases. The trick is to put the text from the book into electronic form and then use the convenient methods available for online texts on it. I used multi-pound printed dictionaries to learn to read Russian, and believe me, this is easier.


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