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?

If you want to learn kanji while you learn how to read Japanese, we have prepared a 550-page book titled Learn to Read in Japanese:  A Japanese Reader, Volume I.  Students who use this book will learn to read 608 basic kanji, plus hiragana and katakana. It 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 II. This second 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 see more information about Volume II.

We are also working on Volume III of the series which will teach another 320 kanji, for a total of 1528. It is in the final stages of proofreading.

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 aides, to help you to learn a total of 1208 basic kanji as you read.

Although it might seem somewhat impractical to start reading practice before you learn 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 them as PDF files by clicking the following button. (You can read more information about this option below.)

PDF Store

Please note that there are differences in the books’ sizes, depending on where you purchase them. The books that are sold at Barnes and Noble and other bookstores are about 0.4 cm thinner (2.8 vs. 3.2 cm) and 4 oz lighter (26 vs. 30 oz) compared to the ones sold at Amazon.

Please see the photo below which shows two pairs of books.  In each pair, the book on the left, which was sold by Barnes and Noble, is thinner and lighter than the book on the right, which was sold by Amazon.

This difference in book size was a complete surprise to us, and it results from the fact that one of our publishers, Kindle Direct, which is owned by Amazon, uses thicker paper than our other publisher, Ingram Spark, does. We were not able to persuade Kindle Direct to change the paper thickness.

Considering the number of hours that you may be holding these books in your hands, if you think that it will be more comfortable for you to hold lighter and thinner books, you may want to buy from a bookstore instead of from Amazon. Bookstore prices are higher than Amazon prices, due to the fact that Ingram Spark charges higher fees for printing our books, compared to those charged by Kindle Direct. However, our royalty for each copy is the same, regardless of where you buy

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 format before buying.  Here is the link for the PDF files: 

PDF Store

Where can one find reviews of this book 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 two described on this page, 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: Sample Chapters 1-4.

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 and 1208 in the second volume. (Note: the second kanji catalogue includes all of the 608 kanji that are covered in the first kanji catalogue.) 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 1208 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 aides (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, Book 1.

Pronunciation Index

As you learn kanji and gradually 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 the kanji’s reference numbers, which can then be used in turn to locate the kanji in the Catalogues.  To see a sample of the Index from our first book, please click this link: Sample Index.

However, if you are using the PDF version of the book on a computer that allows you to Copy and Paste text easily, you will be able to bypass the Index and learn more rapidly. Please see the next section to learn how to copy kanji in sentences that you are reading and then look them up in the Kanji Catalogue.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Two Formats

The books are available as physical books and also 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 the book 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, the reading experience for PDFs is faster because the technique described below allows you to skip the 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 PDFs are less expensive, costing $9 total per book, compared to about $24 for the physical book, and there are no shipping charges for them.

3) If you are in Japan and need to refresh your memory about a kanji that you encounter, it’s convenient to be able to look up characters on a device in your pocket.

4) When there are updates to the books, PDF owners receive them electronically free of charge. Although we don’t know whether there will be any more updates to the books, there were six updates to Volume I and five to Volume II during 2019, some of them involving more than a hundred changes.  Almost all of the changes have been to the Kanji Catalogue, usually to kanji descriptions, Cues and comparisons. Having the latest version of the Kanji Catalogue is important, since each change is designed to make it easier for you to remember the shape and pronunciations of individual kanji.

How to Use the Books in the Physical Format

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

How to Use the Books in the PDF Format

In order to use these books in the PDF format, you will need to install a PDF reader, such as the free Adobe Acrobat Reader app on your computer. (Again, we do not recommend that you use the PDF format on handheld devices, for the reasons mentioned above.) (When installing Acrobat Reader, be careful to uncheck all of the other options on the screen that might force you to install applications that you may not want.)

After installing the PDF reader, open the Japanese Reader and the Kanji Catalogue in separate windows. You will then be able to navigate between the two PDF documents without losing your place in either of them.

Please be aware that the Kanji Catalogue is formatted to allow you to locate any kanji heading with relative ease. (A “kanji heading” is the first portion of the section in the Kanji Catalogue that describes a particular kanji.) The formatting of the kanji headings is “XXXX. kanji” (notice the empty space between the period and the kanji). Of course, the word “kanji” here represents an actual kanji, such as  自.

For example, the heading for the kanji 自 is “0055. 自” (this occupies 7 spaces; again, notice the empty space after the period). If you are in the Kanji Catalogue window and open a Search box, you will be able to locate this kanji heading in one of two ways: either by typing “0055.” (this occupies 5 spaces) or by typing “. 自” (this occupies 3 spaces; think “dot space kanji“).

Now suppose that you are using Acrobat Reader to read a Japanese sentence and you want to look up a kanji in the Kanji Catalogue. First copy the kanji. On a Windows computer, you would do this by highlighting the kanji and pressing Ctrl-c (pushing both the Ctrl key and the “c” key simultaneously).

Next navigate to the Kanji Catalogue by clicking in its window.

Now open a Search box. On a Windows computer, push Ctrl-f. A “Find” box should appear on the screen. Next type “. “ (this occupies 2 spaces; think dot space). Then press Ctrl-v to paste the kanji that you have previously copied into the “Find” box immediately after “. ” and press Enter, or click Next.

On some systems, it may not be necessary to include the space when typing “dot space kanji” in a Search box. Typing “dot kanji” may be enough. Please experiment with your computer to see if you need to use the space or not.

After you have studied the relevant information in the Kanji Catalogue, you may return to the Japanese Reader window, where you will be able to continue reading from the point where you had stopped.

To see how this technique for looking up kanji looks in practice, please see the following video:

Where to Buy the PDF files

To buy the PDF files, please visit:

PDF Store

Again, to buy the physical book, 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 book 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 Reader, updated 05-19

Clarifications to the English Translations for Volume I

When I wrote the English translations to the Japanese sentences found in Learn to Read in Japanese, Vol. I, I deliberately made them quite literal, thinking that most readers would want to see word-for-word equivalents to the Japanese text that they were reading. However, in some cases, they were too literal, and students were unable to decipher their meanings. I apologize for any frustration that this may have caused.

On December 20, 2019, I revised the book, adding 41 clarifications to the English translations. All books sold after this date incorporate these clarifications. If you have an earlier version of the book and would like to consider updating it by hand, here is a list of the latest changes: Translation Clarifications, Volume 1.

If you have any questions or comments about the books, please write them in the box below. 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 Second Book

23 thoughts on “How to Read Japanese

  1. As I was viewing your video, I find it so interesting. I can speak Japanese but unlucky I can’t read and write that well.. I would like to have this book

  2. This format looks perfect. I’m wondering if the book is useful for beginner, intermediate, and advanced learners, or if it is catered more to a specific level. Thanks!

    1. Hi Stephanie,

      The book assumes a certain knowledge of the Japanese language, so it would probably be fair to say that it is for intermediate learners. Here is a quote from the Introduction:

      “Our audio lessons are designed to help people learn to speak Japanese by giving them opportunities to translate from spoken English into Japanese, and they also teach a considerable amount of Japanese grammar and vocabulary. In contrast, this book is designed to help people learn to read Japanese by giving them opportunities to translate from Japanese text into English, and it assumes that students already know some Japanese vocabulary and the basics of Japanese grammar.”

      I hope that answers your question.

  3. Hey Roger,

    I came across your website while I was looking for free Japanese online courses. I was fascinated by the approach you and Noriko took and immediately downloaded the first audio lesson. It is an amazingly helpful source, and I truly thank you for this generous offer. I will be purchasing your book as well because I truly trust in your content. I’ve studied Japanese for 3 years now at my university, finished both Genki 1 and 2. They are good books, but the exercises seemed to be dull sometimes. I believe that your approach is something that is missing in many classes in general: interactive learning. I sometimes really feel like giving up. All the hours I spent on the grammar sections, finding out that I still have difficulties in building sentences. Your lesson, however, gave me back confidence, and I realized that there is a lot knowledge in my head: I just have not been using it. Thank you so much, I gained back my power.

    Warm regards from the Netherlands and all the best,

    1. Hi Vanessa,

      It’s good to hear from you. Noriko and I really appreciate your support.

      I understand what you mean about having knowledge and not being able to use it. It’s a great feeling when we discover, as we pursue Active Recall learning, that we are able to answer a question correctly, uncovering otherwise hidden knowledge. This feeling makes learning exciting and gives us the encouragement we need to press on.

  4. Hi Roger,

    I have the book and discovered the audio files via that.
    Just wanted to say thank you for the excellent material.


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