Would you like to learn to read fluently in Japanese? We have put together a 550-page book titled Learn to Read in Japanese: A Japanese Reader which is designed to make it easy for you to learn to read 608 basic kanji, plus hiragana and katakana. It includes more than 4,200 authentic Japanese sentences and phrases for reading practice. The book is available for purchase on Amazon. You can also see a review of the book on Tofugu.com (on the Tofugu web page, the review is the 4th item from the top).
This book places romaji text and translations of Japanese text in a very small font in a separate column on each page, close to the Japanese text but clearly separated from it. When you don’t want to see romaji equivalents and translations, you will find it easy to ignore them, but they will be readily accessible when you need them. To see how the two columns of text actually look, you may click this link: Japanese Reader Sample.
The only kanji that the book asks you to read are 608 carefully selected “target” kanji, and it makes a serious effort to teach these kanji via an informative Kanji Catalogue that divides kanji into groups of characters sharing characteristics in common. In addition to showing pronunciations, meanings and examples of words that are spelled with each kanji, this Catalogue provides memorable descriptions of the kanji as images, focusing on their “radicals,” or subcomponents. Moreover, it provides retrieval cues (or homophones) for all of the pronunciations associated with these 608 kanji. Retrieval cues (also known as “cues”) are English, or sometimes Japanese, words that are pronounced in the same way that the kanji are pronounced. If you pay close attention to these three kinds of memory aides (kanji groups, descriptions and cues), you will find it easy to remember the kanji. To see a sample of the Kanji Catalogue, you may click this link: Kanji Catalogue Sample.
The book includes a Kanji Pronunciation Index listing 1380 pronunciations that are associated with the 608 target kanji. When you encounter an unfamiliar kanji in the Reader section of the book, you can determine its pronunciation by referring to its romaji pronunciation in the adjacent column. You can then look up this pronunciation in the Index and identify the kanji’s reference number, which can be used in turn to locate the kanji in the Catalogue. To see a sample of the Index, you may click this link: Pronunciation Index Sample.
The Reader section of the book is divided into 103 chapters, each one containing roughly 40 practice sentences and phrases (fewer in the early chapters, more in the later ones). In the first 61 chapters, approximately 10 new kanji are introduced per chapter, and each kanji is used in 3 or more different practice sentences or phrases.
In the last 42 chapters of the Reader, no more new kanji are introduced. You can relax a bit as you continue and practice reading the kanji that you have already learned.
Since this Japanese Reader is partly based on the same collection of sentences that was used to create our Japanese Audio Flashcard lessons, students who have studied the lessons will find a great deal of familiar material as they read. Hearing, speaking and reading the same material will create a synergistic learning experience, enhancing these students’ confidence and morale.
What is the Best Way to Learn Kanji?
I have experimented with various methods for learning kanji, including making my own kanji flashcards. In my experience, kanji flashcards drills become tedious, and they don’t allow students to learn kanji in the context of meaningful words and sentences. When one mixes up a kanji with another similar one, as happens frequently, there is no convenient way to reference the two kanji and compare them side-by-side.
I own a number of textbooks that try to teach kanji to Westerners, and I have found that, while they concentrate on teaching kanji as images with meanings, they pay relatively little attention to their students’ need to learn all of each kanji’s pronunciations. Their authors may not feel confident that students will be able to associate the kanji reliably with all of their possible pronunciations, and so they focus on relatively few. In addition, they do not provide very many sentences for reading practice.
The best way to learn to read kanji, based on my experiences, is to practice reading them in the context of a large number of authentic Japanese sentences and thus to be gradually exposed to all of their possible pronunciations. If that is so, then there is a great need for Japanese reading textbooks. However, when I have searched for such books, I have not found very many, and those that I have found often do not provide romaji pronunciation equivalents. If romaji is provided, it is sometimes placed far away from the Japanese text, making it awkward for the reader to verify whether or not he or she has read the text correctly. Alternatively, in some books, romaji may be placed directly over the Japanese text, making it nearly impossible for students to avoid seeing it when they are trying to read in Japanese.
Sometimes Japanese educational books provide small furigana (written in hiragana) just above certain kanji, in order to help students who don’t know the kanji well. Unfortunately, furigana, like romaji text in plain sight, actually prevent people who may already partly know kanji from reading them unassisted, and thus they interfere with reading practice. In order to use Japanese textbooks effectively for reading practice, I have had to go through several of my Japanese textbooks and cover up their furigana characters with pencil marks, so that I could challenge myself and read Japanese text without this unwanted assistance.
As I see it, the best way to help English-speaking people learn to read in Japanese is to provide an adequate number of sentences written in Japanese, without furigana or prominent romaji. This is the procedure that we have generally followed in preparing our book (with some exceptions where we have thought it necessary to use furigana in order to be able to include a few Japanese words that are spelled with non-target kanji). Thanks to some excellent advice from the Transpacific Digital company in San Francisco, we were able to find a way to provide romaji in a very small font in a separate column on each page, so that it would not detract from the reading experience. See the Japanese Reader Sample.
Regarding the multiple pronunciations that are often associated with each kanji, I think that it’s best to teach these pronunciations by making them readily available to students as they read, but not to make them overly conspicuous. As just stated, one way that we teach kanji pronunciations is by providing romaji equivalents on the same page as the Japanese text. In addition, in order to provide students with easy access to kanji descriptions and verbal retrieval cues, we furnish both a Pronunciation Index and a Kanji Catalogue. Using the Index, which includes virtually all of each kanji’s pronunciations, students are able to locate kanji in the Catalogue, where they find descriptions and cues. Students who pay attention to these descriptions and cues as they read will soon learn to associate correct pronunciations with each kanji.
In order to acquire the ability to read Japanese characters as they are actually written in Japan, we suggest that you spend some time writing them in accordance with their prescribed stroke orders. If you become familiar with stroke orders, you will be more likely to recognize the characters when they are written in non-standard fashion, as they often are in Japan. To see the prescribed stroke orders for hiragana, katakana, and the 608 kanji that we teach in the book, please download and save the following files. You may wish to print these documents and refer to them when you practice writing these characters.
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