Read Long Texts in Japanese – Benefits of Rising to the Challenge
Reading a whole book in Japanese – a daunting task? It’s certainly not easy, but also very rewarding and can even help with the JLPT or job hunting. Find out how to turn practice into a fun, yet productive activity.
The often-overlooked choice
Because visual content like movies, TV/online series and Youtube videos has consistently risen in popularity, the amount of time people sit down with a book has decreased. In Japanese, this phenomenon is known as Katsuji-banare (活字離れ, かつじばなれ), literally “removal from the printed word”.
I did Japanese Studies in university (about as useful as underwater basket weaving – I know), so there were always plenty of people around me that were interested in Japanese or Japan. Many of them practiced their spoken Japanese with tandem partners or watched anime. However, only a handful of them read longer Japanese books for practice or fun outside of class.
At our faculty, we had a small library full of fiction, non-fiction, classical text, children’s stories, even manga (albeit most of them were quite old). Still, reading wasn’t very popular. The consensus seemed to be that it was something that only the senpais in the upper years and the Masters‘ students did because it was so time-consuming and hard.
Is reading worth it?
A reason why relatively few Japanese learners go beyond the manga level is because of the assumption that it’s too difficult, and ultimately not worth it. A common complaint about the JLPT N2 and N1 levels is that they cover grammar, vocabulary, etc. that you’ll never use in the “real world”. A similar kind of thinking seems to apply here.
Depending on what you’re reading, you’ll have to deal with long, run-on sentences, archaic and topic-specific vocabulary, wordplay, and rare kanji. I’ll admit it: It’s hard. The first (light) novel that I read in Japanese took me about half a year to complete – (de)motivational breaks inclusive.
Sounds pretty rough, right? Was it worth it? I’d say: Definitely!
Reasons to pick up a book
When you’re starting to study Japanese (and any other language, for that matter), it makes sense to be efficient. Focusing on frequently used vocabulary, the most common Kanji, etc. allows you to faster progress from beginner to intermediate level.
However, there inevitably comes the point where you reach the “intermediate plateau”: A point where you feel like your language learning progress is getting slower and slower.
That’s because you’ve acquired all the basic skills. You can have conversations about day-to-day events, read manga, follow Japanese TV, order a meal without an English menu… At that point, it’s easy to lose your momentum, especially if you’re still a student and can now deal with about anything that comes up in your day-to-day student life.
Obviously, there’s still a lot of stuff to learn: Business Japanese, polite language, etc. but unless you have a very clear goal, like preparing for a career in Japan, deciding on what to learn next can prove to be surprisingly difficult.
Here are three reasons how reading helps Japanese learners at this stage:
Vocabulary and language repertory
This is the obvious one. Reading and reviewing texts from various sources increases your vocabulary. Having access to more vocabulary also means having access to more way to express yourself, which can be vital. Let me illustrate this with an example:
When you study Japanese for long enough (and especially if you move to Japan as a foreigner), you’ll go through the “first conversation with a new acquaintance” routine hundreds of times.
Where are you from? Why did you come to Japan? What do you like about Japan? Did you know that Japan has four seasons? A lot of foreigners living here get tired of these questions. Some even get outright angry.
At some level, that kind of reaction is understandable. No one wants to have the same conversation over and over again. You could, of course, ask your new Japanese acquaintance to ask less boring questions. But that would be kind of rude, wouldn’t it? How about steering the conversation into more interesting territory yourself?
Ultimately, the range of expressions encountered in the “common situations” that most train for is pretty limited. They enable to communicate smoothly, but only as long as you stay inside a pre-defined area – it’s communication on rails. As soon as you get to the end of the track or want to go into a new direction, things suddenly get a lot harder. This is where a larger-than-average vocabulary stock becomes useful.
By continuously exposing yourself to new and even “useless” vocabulary, you increase the range of topics you can freely talk about and how you talk about them. That makes it easier to set yourself apart from others and leave a unique impression on people. This is not only helpful when meeting new friends, but also in job interview situations.
Flexibility and adaptability
When you’re working in Japan, you’ll often have to deal with things you’ve never heard of before. A lot of the time, information on more complex topics will also be available in English. But that won’t help you when you have to go beyond personal information and talk about those things with others, most importantly at your workplace.
Of course, if you know that you’ll be joining an IT company soon, you can (and frankly, should) prepare by studying up on technical terms and reading IT-related texts. But there’s no way to perfectly predict the future. You will be confronted with unexpected situations and topics, e.g. when you’re asked to research topics outside of your company’s usual range to attract new customers.
Now, having read a Japanese novel from start to end won’t help you with that immediate task. However, constantly confronting yourself with different topics and (types of) texts will eventually decrease the feeling of being overwhelmed by new information and increase your ability to effectively deal with it.
Last but not least, habitually reading Japanese texts will help you immensely in the reading section of the JLPT. As you probably know, the passages that appear in the test cover all sorts of random topics, making it difficult to study the right words in advance. Exposing yourself to different texts in Japanese deepens your understanding of vocabulary and grammar, while also practicing the skill of ‘guessing’ the meaning of passages even if you do not know all the words yet. There’s one more advantage to regular reading: you will get faster.
For many test-takers that didn’t grow up using Kanji, the reading section of the JLPT is the most difficult part of the test because they often lack the practice, and therefore the reading speed and grasp of the contents needed to answer all questions in time. Reading isn’t something you can cram for and it shows in the JLPT results.
Merits of reading practice
It doesn’t have to be a chore. When thinking of reading practice, many tend to think of boring news articles or textbook practice. However, reading a book or other text that you’re personally interested in is a real motivation booster. Once you find the right material, “studying” will not really feel like studying anymore.
My first Japanese book (already mentioned above) was the original light novel for a certain anime I was a big fan of at that time. Reading through it turned out to be difficult, especially because it contained many wordplays and obscure references. But because I was such a big fan (and had seen the anime before, so I already knew the basic plot), I was able to make it to the end.
Immersion. Similar to watching anime, using apps like Hello Talk or listening to radio over the internet, reading helps you surround yourself with Japanese even when you’re not in Japan at the moment. This can be useful when the place you’re currently in isn’t overflowing with Japanese people to talk to. By combining different immersion methods, you can create your own little “Japanese bubble” in your every life (also known as “All Japanese All the Time”, or AJATT for short).
Available everywhere. You can’t stream Japanese drama or anime without a stable internet connection, and to practice speaking with a tandem partner, you need Japanese people around you. However, reading a book or a text file on your phone, tablet or kindle is possible anywhere, any time.
Reviewing material is easy. When watching shows (especially without subtitles), it can be quite hard to keep up with the pace. I remember many times when I had to keep hitting rewind to make out what the actor in the NHK Taiga Drama I was watching had just mumbled to himself.
With texts, on the other hand, you can truly progress at your own pace. If you don’t know a word – it’s right there, black on white, ready to be looked up.
It can be tempting to pull out the dictionary the second you run into a word you don’t know yet. However, I’d recommend trying to go through the text with as few “dictionary breaks” as possible.
As long as you get the broad strokes of what you’re reading, you don’t have to catch every single detail. Mark new words along the way and look them up later. You can turn those words into vocabulary lists or just directly put them into Anki or similar software for review.
What to watch out for
While reading has its merits, it comes with its own kinds of potential hurdles. Here are some things that you should stay aware of.
Challenge vs Engagement
Finding the right reading level is important. When you’re starting out, not giving up early is important. It will feel rewarding when you finally make it through a tough text. At the same time, overestimating your abilities can slow down your progress. A fine balance needs to be struck here.
Ideally, you want to read texts that constantly supply you with new words and kanji while being easy enough to understand that going through them doesn’t feel like a chore. Starting with a book that you’ve already read in another language (or the original work that a film or series you’ve seen is based on) can help.
For the first try, I’d recommend taking your time and being stubborn. Once you accumulate the first bit of experience, it becomes easier to determine whether continuing with a text is “worth it” or you’re better off just choosing a different one.
It’s also better to avoid texts that were translated into Japanese from another language. While you will still get new vocabulary out of those texts, their sentence structure can be somewhat stilted and unnatural. I noticed this when I read the Japanese version of Harry Potter – something about the text just felt “off”, which ended up making me stop halfway through the first book.
If you can already read a text in its original form, there’s no need to train for reading it in Japanese. I think you’re better off absorbing Japanese styles of expression that haven’t gone through the translation filter.
What to keep and what to leave
While there may not be such a thing as “useless vocabulary”, you don’t need to know every new word that you run into actively. This is especially true when you’re reading stuff like fantasy or sci-fi stories, old texts with antiquated language, etc.
Whenever you’re not sure if you want to actively review and study a new piece of vocabulary, you can always choose to leave it for now. However, if you run into the same word again further down the line (especially if it comes up in a different text or book), consider putting it in your review file, even if it seems a bit obscure.
Here are the main two sources I’d recommend for online reading (aside from news, blogs, etc):
Aozora Bunko: An online library for Japanese texts that have either gone out of copyright or have been made freely available by their authors. It boasts thousands of works, but because of the out-of-copyright caveat, the texts are often relatively old.
Shousetsuka ni narou: This is a website where amateur authors can post their original stories. If you’re lucky, you can find some pretty unique stories. On the other hand, the content on there was never checked by an editor, so there can be times where you don’t know whether you’re just not getting it or the mistake is on the author’s part.
While digital content is very accessible, getting a physical copy of a Japanese book (e.g. through Amazon) has its merits. Firstly, if you’re like me and prefer reading things that are printed on paper, having an actual book just feels more comfortable. If it’s in your possession, you’re also able to be very liberal with all kinds of markings, etc.
If you order your books from Japan, you’ll probably have to pay a bit extra for international shipping. However, even that doesn’t have to be a pure downside. Having to invest a little bit more to get the material you want can increase motivation – after all, you don’t want that money you spent to go to waste.
If you’ve just reached the intermediate level, tackling reading a whole book seems very challenging. But taking up the challenge comes with many indirect merits that’ll help you along the way – even when job hunting in Japan. So, the next time there’s an opportunity, don’t be afraid and dive into the pages!