How to Read Japanese

Learning to read in Japanese is difficult, but we can show you a simpler and faster way to do it. After mastering the 46 hiragana and 46 katakana characters, you will need to acquire a basic knowledge of more than 2,000 kanji, most of which are associated with more than one possible pronunciation, and then you will need to engage in extensive reading practice.

Instead of studying each of those kanji characters in isolation with the use of flashcards or learning to write them all by hand, hoping someday to arrive at the point where you can actually read Japanese text, why not learn kanji quickly with the help of mnemonics and then practice reading them in real sentences almost immediately? We have devoted eight years to the development of six books that make it possible for you to do just that and to learn to read in Japanese as efficiently as possible.

Our Four Japanese Readers

Our first Japanese Reader is Learn to Read in Japanese:  A Japanese Reader, Volume 1.  Students who use this book will learn to read 608 basic kanji. It contains a Core Kanji catalogue describing those characters. The book is 552 pages long, and it includes more than 4,200 Japanese sentences for reading practice.

Our second Japanese Reader is Learn to Read in Japanese, Volume 2. This book is 577 pages long, and it teaches 600 additional kanji, for a total of 1208. It contains a Core Kanji catalogue describing those characters, and it also includes more than 1,600 sentences and 2,900 Japanese terms for reading practice.

Our third Japanese Reader is Learn to Read in Japanese, Volume 3. It is 528 pages long, and it teaches 320 additional kanji, for a total of 1528. It contains a Core Kanji catalogue describing those characters, and it includes more than 900 Japanese sentences and 2,100 terms for reading practice.

Our fourth Japanese Reader is Learn to Read in Japanese, Volume 4. It is 289 pages long, it teaches 560 additional kanji, for a total of 2,088, and it includes 1,623 Japanese sentences and more than 3,800 terms for reading practice. Due to space constraints, it does not contain a Core Kanji catalogue, but the Core Kanji catalogue shown below and sold separately is designed to be used with this Reader.

A Complete Core Kanji Catalogue for Learning Japanese Kanji

In order to start reading in Japanese, you will need to acquire a basic knowledge of the kanji that Japanese people most often use. We have assembled a list of those kanji and prepared Core Kanji: a Catalogue of 2,088 Essential Kanji, listing 2,088 characters for you to learn. This book is 448 pages long and includes a Kanji Pronunciation Index listing 4,200 kanji pronunciations, allowing you to look up a kanji easily when you know one or more of its pronunciations.

Please note that the first three Japanese Readers described above each include a preliminary version of this Core Kanji catalogue, describing all of the kanji that have been introduced in the curriculum up to that point. Therefore, this complete Core Kanji catalogue is not necessary for students who are studying Readers 1, 2 and 3. However, all of the editions of the Core Kanji catalogue were revised in December 2022, with extensive improvements to the kanji descriptions and cues (or mnemonics), and to the comparisons between different characters. This means that, if you are using an earlier version of one of our Readers, you will almost certainly find it worthwhile to get this final version to help you learn the kanji as you read. In addition, this complete version of the catalogue will prove to be a valuable reference book when you need to look up kanji characters in the future.

Like the earlier Core Kanji catalogues that are included in the first three Readers, the Core Kanji stand-alone catalogue lists each kanji with the basic information required to get started reading. This information consists of: 1) the pronunciations that students are likely to encounter for the character; 2) the meanings of the character; 3) one or more sample Japanese words for each of the character’s possible pronunciations; 4) a memorable description of the character, to help students to recognize it more easily in the future (such descriptions often focus on differences between the current kanji and other similar ones); 5) a brief sentence that contains retrieval cues (or mnemonics) for each of the character’s possible pronunciations; and 6) comparisons between the character and other similar kanji.

Speaking of kanji descriptions, they are an important part of the memorization process. Please see the following sample listings taken from the first pages of the Core Kanji catalogue. Just for fun, before you look at them closely, please try to invent a memorable description for each kanji. After you have done so, compare your description of the character to the one that we have decided to use.

As you develop a basic acquaintance with a number of kanji like these, you will want to engage in reading practice, which will naturally strengthen your knowledge of the kanji, and for that you should consider using our Japanese Readers, where you will receive immediate feedback on your reading accuracy, as shown in the example below. (When you are reading sentences in one of our Readers, we recommend that you use your thumb or a piece of paper to hide the romaji and English equivalents as you try to read the Japanese text.)

A Glossary of Terms Found in our Japanese Readers

As we were compiling these books, we noticed that the number of Japanese vocabulary terms in our four Readers had increased to a level that students might find difficult to manage. This increase in Japanese vocabulary is an inevitable result of the fact that the study of new kanji entails the acquisition of new terms, 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 publishing a Glossary of the more than 9,300 Japanese terms that appear in the four Readers shown above. The glossary cannot replace a Japanese dictionary, but it contains all of the vocabulary terms that you may need to look up while using our Readers, together with mnemonics and comparisons among different terms.

How is it possible to read Japanese and learn kanji at the same time?

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 questions, “How is this word pronounced, and what does it mean?” These simple questions force your brain to work to recall each character, its pronunciation and its meaning. Since there is no penalty for incorrect answers and since the answers to the questions that you can’t answer are immediately available, Active Recall is an enjoyable way to learn.  When you are able to answer questions correctly, you will experience considerable satisfaction and a sense of competence.  Studies have shown that Active Recall is highly effective for building strong memories, compared to more passive study methods.

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 other assistance that the books provide, you will soon learn kanji and start reading Japanese text.

Where can I buy these “Learn to Read in Japanese” books ?

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 other sites.  Any bookstore can order them from Ingram Spark, one of our publishers.

You may also purchase the books as PDF files, but we suggest that you only use such files on a computer or laptop where you can open multiple windows, because our tests indicate that searching large PDF files like these on other electronic devices is unacceptably slow and awkward. Please see Japanese Reading Practice on a Computer Screen for more information. Here is the link for the PDF files:

 PDF Store

Where can I find reviews of these books?

You can read reviews of some of our books that teach kanji and help you learn to read Japanese on Amazon US, Amazon UK, and Amazon Japan.  In addition, there are two reviews on Tofugu.com, at this site (the review is the 4th item from the top) and also at this site (the review is the 2nd item from the top).

How to Use the Japanese Readers

In all four Japanese Readers, we make it easier for you to learn to read Japanese by introducing new kanji at the beginning of each chapter and then asking you to take a quick pre-test on their pronunciations before you start to read. The practice reading material in each lesson includes only kanji characters that you know or are in the process of learning, and we provide immediate feedback about your reading accuracy in the form of same-page romaji equivalents and translations.

We provide at least three practice sentences for each new kanji. In addition, in Readers 2, 3, and 4 we include thousands of Japanese words and phrases for vocabulary reading practice. This vocabulary comes from three sources: the examples in the Kanji Catalogue, the practice sentences in each chapter, and (for Readers 2 and 3) the optional supplemental reading material available online.

These books are designed to help you learn to read Japanese in five steps:

Step One. Core Kanji Catalogue. Before you start a chapter, turn to the Core Kanji catalogue and take some time to review the new kanji that are listed in the New Kanji table at the beginning of the chapter. Your aim should be to acquire the ability to recognize each kanji and associate it with its pronunciations.

Step Two. Pronunciation Pre-Test. Next turn to the chapter that you are about to start reading and take the “Pronunciation Pre-Test.” To do this, look at the New Kanji table and try to voice each of the pronunciations for all of the kanji in the table. Use the table at the bottom of the page to check your accuracy. Repeat this test several times until you feel ready to start reading.

Step Three. Vocabulary List with Mnemonics. Next start reading the Vocabulary List, being careful to cover the “answers” on the right side of the page with a piece of paper or your thumb. You will usually have a chance to practice reading each new kanji multiple times in different words. You will also see mnemonics for most of the words that appear in the Vocabulary Lists.

Step Four. Practice Sentences. Next read the Practice Sentences that are provided in each chapter. This is where you will really feel that you have started to learn to read Japanese. Again, be sure to cover the text on the right side of the page as you read, but don’t hesitate to uncover it if you aren’t sure about kanji pronunciations or when you don’t know how to translate the Japanese text.

Step Five. Supplemental Reading (Readers 2 and 3 only). We hope that you will take this last step, but it is optional. We have identified some fascinating Japanese language articles online that use only the kanji that you have already learned. These articles are available from “Satori Reader” (73 articles referenced in the second Reader) and from “News in Slow Japanese” (44 articles referenced in the second Reader and 98 articles in the third Reader). As you read these articles, you will see that you have made significant progress in your effort to learn to read Japanese. Please click on this link to read more about these supplemental resources.

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.

Download Sample Pages

If you would like to see sample pages from our books, please click on this link to download a PDF file containing samples from all six volumes.

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 administrator@japaneseaudiolessons.com.

Next, More About Learning to Read in Japanese

25 thoughts on “How to Read Japanese

  1. After searching extensively, I discovered this great book that is unlike any other I have found!

    Being away from Japan for many years, and recently returning there to live, I sought a good way to refresh and build upon my previously acquired language skills. This book (as well as the second volume in the series) filled that void. The content, style, focus and execution provide relevant conversation examples that apply to daily life. Gradual introduction of new kanji with each lesson, while constantly reusing kanji learned in prior lessons, is an effective reinforcement method for memorizing kanji.

    This is a great tool for anyone serious about learning to read Japanese. The side-by-side arrangement of the Japanese text with the accompanying Romaji and English versions is very user-friendly. The book works well in three ways: first, as a self-study course for learning to read Japanese; second as a practical reference for identifying useful daily survival phrases; and third, as a primer of everyday grammar usage.

    Regardless of whether you are just beginning to study Japanese, or if you are desiring to boost your existing language proficiency level, this book offers the best method I have found for learning to read Japanese.

  2. Hi, I have purchased the two volumes of your books “Learn to Read in Japanese”. I thought the audio files of the sentences were available. Is this so? If so, could you please tell me how to find them. Thanks

    1. Hi Barbara,
      Thank you for buying the two books. I hope that they will be helpful as you study Japanese.
      As I mention in the Preface to the first book, the 4,200 sentences in the first book overlap considerably with the 7,500 sentences in the audio lessons which you can download free of charge from JapaneseAudioLessons.com (go to Audio Lessons, Lesson Download Portal), but the order of the sentences is completely different. If you were to study the audio lessons and then read the book, you would find many familiar sentences in the book.
      The sentences in the second book were taken from the internet, for the most part, although many of them were derived from sentences in the audio lessons.

  3. Hi Roger, congratulations to you and Ura-san on the first book, it’s a great achievement. Has the second book been sent to stores yet, I don’t see it on Amazon yet?, I am Tokyo based, awaiting eagerly, John-Paul

  4. Hi Roger,

    Let me thank you for this high quality material you made with the first book, I’m eager to start the other.

    Do you think btw that the first book is covering more less all Kanji needed for JLPT 3? I believe it is a match in term of number but it might be significantly different from the targeted kanji in the test.

    Denis

    1. Hi Denis,

      That’s an excellent question. I had not thought very deeply about how the two books might help people who are studying for the JLPT tests.

      After researching this today, I’ve come to the following tentative conclusions: The N5 test supposedly requires knowledge of 103 kanji and the N4 test requires knowledge of 181 kanj. All of these kanji are taught in Learn to Read in Japanese, Volume I. However, Volume I does not come close to teaching the kanji required for the N3 test.

      The N3 test requires 580 additional kanji. Volume II of Learn to Read in Japanese, which I am proofreading now and plan to release this summer, will teach 506 of those kanji. However, there are 74 additional kanji required for the test which Volume II will not teach. Therefore, I plan to make a list of those 74 additional kanji and post it on this web site after the book is released, so that students who are planning to take JLPT N3 will know which additional kanji they need to learn.

      Thank you for asking this question, as I think that this will help quite a few other students.

  5. I found your book interesting but I wonder if you’ll have the next level of it. I want to take JLPT N2 so I need books like yours.

    1. Hi Mitsuki,

      Yes, I’m working on Volume 2, in which I hope to teach another 600 kanji or so. I’m about half finished, but I really can’t predict when it might be ready for publication.
      Update April 1, 2018. The second book is finished, but I’m still proof-reading it. It will cover 600 additional kanji. I hope to publish it this summer.

      1. I have your 1st book. It was of great help-especially for non-schol types like me. I am eagerly waiting for the 2nd book. I bought the first book at Kinokuniya, in Shinjuku. Will the second be available there?

        1. Hi Chitta,

          Thanks for your message. I’m glad you liked the book.

          The second volume is finished. I’m excited about it, but there is quite a bit of proofreading and checking to do before I can publish it. It covers 600 more kanji in 75 chapters and is slightly longer than the first book.

          The book will present each new kanji in 5 stages: 1) the kanji catalogue, which also includes the 608 kanji from the first book, for a total of 1208; 2) the kanji pronunciation pre-test at the beginning of each new chapter (8 new kanji per chapter); 3) a chance to practice reading the new vocabulary words that appear in the kanji catalogue, the practice sentences and the supplemental reading material, with mnemonics to help you to remember each new word; 4) at least three practice sentences for each new kanji, separated from one another; and 5) optional supplemental reading material to practice reading the kanji in the context of authentic Japanese stories or articles (optional because you need to access paid content on the internet in order to read it, but reasonably inexpensive).

          I also have seen the book for sale at Kinokuniya in Shinjuku. We will try to make sure that they carry the second book as well.

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