Learning to Read Japanese

Everyone learns differently. A method which works well for one person will work poorly for another person. This page details what method I would use if I were learning Japanese from scratch today. Note that the numbers used here are purely made up for what sounds right to me, and will certainly not be optimal.

Note that this guide is based on the goal of being able to read native material. There is no focus on writing, listening, or speaking.

Study and Review with Consistency

If you have time to complete all your reviews in a given day, do so. If not, then force yourself to do a minimal number of reviews. You may even find you have time for more reviews than anticipated. Try to get in at least five kanji, five vocabulary, and three grammar reviews per day (once you have stared learning each).

Consistency also helps avoid the situation where you decide to skip a review for one day, which can soon become a week or a month. It may be hard to begin a task, but it’s much easier to continue one after you’ve started. You’ll likely complete more reviews than you expected.

Be Flexible in Your Learning Volume

If you’re having trouble remembering what you’ve learned, stop learning new material and focus on reviewing and understanding your current material.

If something is too difficult for you to understand, remove it from your reviews, and move on with more new material. You can come back to the difficult material when you’ve have more experience.

Use the Spaced-Repetition System for Flash Cards

Many flash card applications implement a spaced-repetition system (SRS), where material you are familiar with appears with less frequency to review, and material you are not familiar with appears with more frequency to review. This allows you to spend more time reviewing new and difficult material, and less time reviewing material you know well.

Learn Hiragana and Katakana

First off all, learn to read hiragana. Learn katakana as well. Since I learned these in high school back when the World Wide Web was still young, and well before the smartphone existed, I have no resources to provide on this. I’m sure there are plenty out there.

Once you can read hiragana and katakana, you can read any native material that includes furigana readings next to kanji characters. You won’t understand what you read, but you’ll be able to practice reading individual letters.

Learn Kanji, Vocabulary, and Grammar

Once you can read ひらがな and カタカナ, you have kanji, vocabulary, and grammar to learn.

Knowing that ねこ is “cat” won’t help when you’re reading and see 猫. Knowing that 馬 is “horse” won’t help when an author decides to be cutesy and write it as ウマ. Knowing all the words in a sentence doesn’t mean you’ll have any idea what someone is saying. And understanding the grammar isn’t going to illuminate all the words you don’t know.

Ask ten learners which of the three you should start with will get you at least five different answers.
My personal recommendation is as follows.

Learn Basic Kanji and Their Composition

You don’t want kanji to be a mystery. When you see a kanji, you want to be aware of its composition. If you encounter 働く, rather than seeing 働 as a big blob, you will be able to recognize it is composed of イ, 重, and 力. You won’t be able to do anything with this information yet, but you’ll be better equipped to recognize the kanji in vocabulary reviews.

Aim to learn at least the first 50 kanji in the resource you use. During this time, occasionally look through native material for any kanji you recognize. At this point, you should be ready to begin learning common vocabulary, but also keep learning new kanji.

Resources include:

  • Remembering the Kanji (book; focuses on kanji meaning without vocabulary)
  • Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course (book)
  • WaniKani (online subscription; utilizes SRS)

Learn Common Vocabulary

Some kanji resources teach you vocabulary alongside the kanji. However, these resources teach kanji from simple to complex. They may show uncommon vocabulary early on, and common vocabulary much later.

Start learning common vocabulary next. Aim to learn at least 100 to 200 words. You should start seeing words you can read when viewing native material. Knowing common vocabulary makes it easier for the next step of learning grammar. Once you begin grammar lessons, also continue learning new vocabulary, alongside new kanji.

Resources include:

  • iKnow (online subscription; utilizes SRS)
  • Anki with Japanese Core 2000 deck (free deck based on early iKnow material)

Learning Basic Grammar

Learn the N5 level grammar, then start learning N4 grammar.

Looking through native material, you should start to recognize basic grammar. However, the majority will be unknown until you complete N4.

Keep learning new grammar, alongside learning new vocabulary and learning new kanji.

Resources include:

Read Native Material

Start reading native material. Expect that most of it will be a big mystery. Prepare to spend time looking up vocabulary, kanji, and grammar you do not know.

When viewing native material, you should be able to know where one word ends and another begins (as Japanese words typically are not separated by spaces). You should also be able to break down most kanji into radicals. You won’t know all the radicals yet, but you should be able to pick out radicals you do know in more difficult kanji you haven’t learned yet.

Expect to not know most of the vocabulary in any native material you view. A low-dialogue manga volume may have over 1,000 individual words (before factoring in all the conjugations). Chances are, fewer than 100 of the words in the book will be ones you know.

For some manga, you can find list of words used per chapter or volume. This allows you to learn the words you’ll need in advance of reading, rather than looking words up while reading. Otherwise, start making your own flash cards in a flash card application to supplement your main vocabulary resource.

Continue working your way through N4 grammar. Aim for reaching 1,000 vocabulary words memorized. Work toward over 100 kanji recognized. If you have a smartphone, squeeze in SRS reviews during any brief downtime.