How to Read Japanese

We want to show you how to read Japanese in a simpler and faster way. Instead of studying each kanji character in isolation with the use of flashcards or writing each one by hand while hoping someday to arrive at the point where you can actually read Japanese articles, why not try learning kanji and vocabulary more quickly with the help of mnemonics and then practice reading them in real sentences almost immediately?

Our Japanese Readers

In an effort to help people who want to learn kanji while they learn how to read Japanese, we first published a 550-page book in December 2016 titled Learn to Read in Japanese:  A Japanese Reader, Volume 1.  Students who use this book can learn to read 608 basic kanji, plus hiragana and katakana. The book includes more than 4,200 authentic Japanese sentences and phrases for reading practice.

In addition, in July of 2018, we released Learn to Read in Japanese, Volume 2. This book teaches 600 additional kanji, for a total of 1208 in the two books combined. It includes more than 1,600 sentences for Japanese reading practice. It also contains 2,900 vocabulary words and phrases for reading practice, most of which are associated with helpful mnemonics to help you to remember new terms.

Please click here to read more about Volume 2.

In December of 2020, we released Learn to Read in Japanese, Volume 3. It teaches 320 additional kanji, for a total of 1528, and includes more than 900 sentences and 2,100 vocabulary words and phrases for reading practice.

Please click here to read more about Volume 3.

Our Glossary

As we were compiling the information in Volume 3 of the series, it became increasingly clear that the number of Japanese vocabulary terms in the three books had increased to a level that students might find difficult to manage. This increase in vocabulary was a result of the fact that the study of new kanji unavoidably entails the acquisition of new vocabulary, since each kanji character is associated with its own unique words.

Therefore, we decided to try to help students organize and remember this vocabulary by assembling a companion Glossary of more than 7,400 Japanese terms that appear in the three books shown above, which we published at the same time that we published Volume 3 of the series. (The Glossary is also available in a Kindle version to enable rapid searches  on handheld devices and a PDF version to enable searches on laptop or desktop computers.) We think that this additional book will be particularly helpful for users of Volume 1 in the Learn to Read in Japanese series, since Volume 1 does not contain the Vocabulary Lists that are a feature of Volumes 2 and 3, and its sentences contain some rather difficult vocabulary and grammar, much of which we try to explain in the glossary.

Please click here to read more about the Glossary.

How can one learn how to read Japanese and learn kanji at the same time?

To learn how to read Japanese is complicated.  In order to get started, you will need to be able to recognize and pronounce 46 hiragana, 46 katakana, and hundreds of kanji characters. In addition, you will need to devote a number of hours to reading practice.

If you want to learn how to read Japanese within a reasonable period of time (months rather than years), a good strategy is to learn hiragana, katakana and a number of basic kanji quickly (although imperfectly at first) and then start reading almost immediately.  Our books make this possible by providing you with a large number of Japanese sentences written in a large clear font, easily accessible feedback on your reading accuracy, and a comprehensive Kanji Catalogue, including memory aids, to help you to learn a total of 1528 basic kanji as you read.

Although it might seem somewhat impractical to start reading practice before you know kanji very well, this approach is firmly grounded in a study technique known as Active Recall, which can be defined as “learning by answering questions.” Active Recall is the technique that underlies these Japanese Audio Flashcard Lessons, and it is also the basis of flashcard learning generally. In addition, the Pimsleur method and the “Learn in Your Car” method, both described here, are based on Active Recall.

When you look at a Japanese word and try to read it unassisted, you are essentially asking yourself the question, “How is this word pronounced?” This simple question forces your brain to work to recall each character and its pronunciation. Since there is no penalty for incorrect answers and since the answers to the questions that you are asking yourself are readily available when you don’t know them, Active Recall is an enjoyable way to learn.  When you are able to answer questions correctly, you will experience considerable satisfaction, and your sense of competence will be enhanced.  Studies have shown that, in comparison to more passive study methods, Active Recall is highly effective for building strong memories.

As you read the books, you will find that all of the help that you need to learn how to read Japanese is close at hand.  If you relax and read the sentences at your own speed, you will be exposed to the same kanji repeatedly in different situations.  By simply reading and availing yourself of  the feedback and the references that the books provide, you will soon learn kanji and be able to read with confidence.

Where can a person buy these books that help one learn how to read Japanese?

The books are available for purchase at Amazon, at Amazon UK, at Barnes and Noble, at the Book Depository in the UK, at Booktopia in Australia, at Amazon Japan, and at many other sites.  Any bookstore can order them from Ingram Spark, one of our publishers.

You may also purchase the books digitally as PDF files for use on electronic devices.  This digital option is significantly less expensive, but please see the section “Advantages and Disadvantages of the Two Formats” below and consider the pros and cons of each choice before buying.  Here is the link for the PDF files: 

Where are some reviews of the first book of the series that teaches how to learn kanji as you read Japanese?

You can read reviews of our first book that teaches how to learn kanji and how to read Japanese on Amazon US, Amazon UK, and Amazon Japan.  In addition, there is a review on (on the Tofugu web page, the review is the 4th item from the top).

Using a Japanese Reader to learn how to read Japanese

If you visit a large Japanese bookstore in Japan, you will see hundreds of English Readers designed for Japanese people to use to perfect their English skills, but where are the comparable Japanese Readers? They hardly exist. The reason, I think, is that a Japanese person learning English only needs to know 26 alphabetic characters, whereas English-speaking people learning how to read Japanese need to know far more. An ordinary Japanese Reader is far too difficult for English-speaking people who are trying to learn how to read Japanese. As a result, they are forced to learn kanji laboriously one by one and hope that someday they will accumulate enough knowledge to start some serious reading. This approach is hardly conducive to the development of reading fluency within a person’s lifetime.

Even after learning a large number of kanji, students who try to read random Japanese text are likely to encounter many more kanji that they’ve never seen before, with no easy way to look them up. In some cases, Japanese publishers provide furigana (tiny hiragana characters above kanji that they consider more difficult), and these can be helpful if one doesn’t know the kanji at all. However, furigana are unhelpful if one is trying to read kanji that one half-knows, since they allow the brain to cheat, and thus they hinder the development of true reading fluency.

It seems to me that the solution to this lack of Japanese Readers lies in books like the ones we have assembled, which only use kanji in the order that students have learned them. In addition, these books place supplemental text, i.e., romaji and translations, in a small font in a separate column on each page, close to the Japanese text but clearly separated from it. When a reader doesn’t want to see romaji equivalents and translations, he or she will find it easy to ignore them, but the supplemental text is readily accessible when needed. To see how the two columns of text actually look, please click this link: Book 1, Chaps 1-2.

The Reader section of  the first book is divided into 103 chapters, each one containing roughly 40 practice sentences and phrases. 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 in the first book, no more new kanji are introduced. Students can relax a bit as they practice reading the kanji that they have already learned.

Since the Reader in the first book 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.

Using a “Kanji Catalogue” to Learn Kanji

The books include informative Kanji Catalogues that describe “target” kanji — 608 in the first volume, 1208 in the second volume and 1528 in the third volume. (Note: the kanji catalogues for each volume include all of the kanji that are covered in previous volumes.) In addition to showing pronunciations, meanings and examples of words that are spelled with each kanji, these Catalogues provide memorable descriptions of the kanji as images, focusing on their “radicals,” or subcomponents.

Moreover, the Kanji Catalogues provide retrieval cues (or homophones) for all of the pronunciations associated with these 1528 kanji. Retrieval cues (which we usually refer to 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 aids (kanji groups, descriptions and Cues), you will find it relatively easy to learn kanji.  To see a sample of the Kanji Catalogue from our first book, please click this link:  Sample Kanji Catalogue 1.

Pronunciation Index

As you learn kanji and begin to learn how to read Japanese, you will want to refer frequently to the Kanji Pronunciation Index which lists all of the pronunciations that are associated with the target kanji. When you encounter unfamiliar kanji as you read, you will be able to determine their pronunciations by referring to their romaji pronunciations in the adjacent romaji text. You can then look up those pronunciations in the Index and identify reference numbers for kanji that you want to investigate further, which can then be used in turn to locate the kanji in the Kanji Catalogue. To see a sample of the Index from our first book, please click this link: Sample Index.

However, after you have learned a fairly large number of kanji and feel ready to engage in extensive reading practice, there is a technique that will allow you to bypass the Kanji Pronunciation Index and learn more rapidly. This technique requires that you use the PDF versions of the books on a computer that allows you to Copy and Paste text easily. If you are interested in doing this, please read the following section and refer to this page for more information.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Two Formats

The books are available as physical books, and they are also available for download as PDF files which can be used on computers. Which format is best for you?

The physical books have the advantage of portability, in the sense that you don’t need to be near a computer to use them. It’s easy to open the Pronunciation Index at the back of any of the books in order to look up kanji and then turn to the Kanji Catalogue to review the information contained there before returning to the text in the Japanese Reader. Using a physical book is a comfortable experience and may feel more intuitive, compared to using an electronic screen.

On the other hand, the PDF files have the following advantages:

1) If you have access to a computer that allows you to Copy and Paste text easily and you feel ready to engage in extensive reading practice, the reading experience for PDF files is faster because the technique described below will allow you to skip the Kanji Pronunciation Index. Unfortunately, this technique does not work very well on handheld devices such as iPhones, Android phones and iPads because such devices make it difficult to select one kanji at a time, and they do not allow multiple windows to be opened at once.

2) The PDF files are less expensive, costing $9 total per book, compared to about $25 for the physical books, and there are no shipping charges for them.

How to Use the Books in their Print Versions

Please watch this video to see how to use the print version of the book “Learn to Read in Japanese, Volume I,” to learn how to read Japanese.

How to Use the Books in their PDF Versions

In order to use these books in their PDF versions, you will need to install a PDF reader, such as the free Adobe Acrobat Reader app, on your computer. (Once again, we do not recommend that you use the PDF format on handheld devices, for the reasons mentioned above.) To learn more about using the PDF files on a computer, please refer to the Suggestions for Efficient Reading Practice page.

Where to Buy the PDF files of the Learn to Read  books

To buy the PDF files, please visit:

To buy the print books, please see one of these links:  Amazon, Amazon UK, Barnes and Noble, the Book Depository in the UK, Booktopia in Australia, and Amazon Japan.  Any bookstore can order the books from Ingram Spark, our publisher.

Stroke Orders

To acquire the ability to learn kanji and other 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 first 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.

Hiragana Stroke Orders

Katakana Stroke Orders

Kanji Stroke Orders for Volume 1, updated 05-19

If you have any questions or comments about the books, please write them in the box below (you will need to scroll all the way to the bottom of the page). We will do our best to reply to every message that we receive, and we will post the ones that are of general interest on this page.  If you would rather contact us privately, you may send an email to

Next, Read More About our Other Three Books



25 thoughts on “How to Read Japanese

  1. Absolutely wonderful tome of knowledge. I am so grateful to you both. I just noticed I had an email for Volume III and immediately without hesitation clicked the links to order it, and also the glossary. These will be great additions to my collection. Your books and your audio lessons and your transcripts have been absolutely crucial in my studies and I truly appreciate everything you have done for us learners. These books are also a STEAL for the quality and quantity of content you have packed into them not even including all of the free resources that you offer on your website, so thank you so much again.

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