How To Start Thinking in Japanese With Reading

Greetings. I’ll go through the three phases i’m observing relative to this topic.

Set The Environment

Trigger the Mind

Train Recall Normally

NOTE: The research i’m speaking about here requires intermediate ability. To implement what i’m doing You should know at least 2,163 Kanji and have at least N3 level of grammar locked. To be honest, I think to “comfortably” read novels one needs to hit N2 but I haven’t had that many problems reading (so far) at around an N3 level, but I’m gunning for N2 while I wrap up a Verb memorization strategy i’ve developed and was testing. Still read this article and enjoy it, I just don’t want you to worry if you aren’t at this level yet. Reading research like this might be the trigger that gets you to the next level, so go for it! Okay, on to the article.

Normally the expression  “think in your target language” is a term I avoid at all costs (initially), because if people really knew what is required to think in another language, they would most likely run for the hills. The ability to do this comes after probably thousands of hours of specific activies that reinforce patterns in your mind to the point of being able to then ‘think in the target langauge’. Now, what is an interesting observation that i’ve noticed is that, once you cross certain thresholds , this ‘thinking’ happens by itself. Meaning the brain begins to think in the target language.

Set The Environment

The easiest way to force thinking in Japanese is to attempt reading it. Watching Japanese actively does not always ‘force’ thinking in Japanese, it forces observation of what is said, and then attempting to see what you are able to process. If you are lost, nothing happens. Speaking in Japanese, generally tests your recall of what you know and allows you to try and piece together what you have mastered, though the demonstration of this does not necessarily reflect significant comprehensive ability. if I can say ‘yesterday my friend told me he went to the bank’ in Japanese, that does not mean that I have godlike skills in thinking in the language necessarily. So far, nothing forces your brain ‘to think’ more than reading. Reading cannot be done without attempting to think in the language. You must read a sentence, and gain a sense of what it is communicating in Japanese. Of course your mind is translating (in a sense), but many sentences you just ‘know’ what they are saying because sometimes there are no direct translations, or you figure it out in Japanese. 

These two books:











This entire process is still quite intensive, and I’ve been slowly phasing into different territories. I was fortunate to get a few books form the Japanese Embassy for my research, and these are two of them:

The first is 真夜中は別の顔 mayonaka ha betsu no kao  it translates to ‘Another Face of Midnight’, and the English title is ‘The Other Side of Midnight’.

The second, is  笑いの研究 warai no kenkyuu which literally means ‘Laughter Research’. I picked this one up because the text was easy to read. Many Japanese novels have very tiny fonts and I find my eyes hurting within seconds of trying to read and I try to pick books with bolder prints.

Okay I’m going to use the first book as an example: Let’s look at page 1:

We see:

プロローグ  ー Prologue

一九四七年  ー year 1947

ギリシャのアテネ ー Athens, Greece


A good thing to note here is that I didn’t even look these up the first time. I just saw “Prologue” and the year. but I didn’t know if “ギリシャのアテネ” (Athens, Greece) was the name of a person. This may seem weird to be able to read Kanji and not know this, but there are TONS of words written in Katakana that have to be learned upon encountering them, as they have no real resemblance to words in English. Generally anything foreign, names, places, or onomatopoeia. I’ve personally decided to just encounter them, as sitting down learning “jiggly”, “wiggly”, “squiggly” and those types of thing pretty useless at this stage lol. However, just by opening the book, i’m setting the stage  for ‘thinking in Japanese’.


By reading (or attempting to read) you are stepping into raw Japanese territory. There is no one to save you. Its just you, the words and what they might mean. Your brain will immediately be ‘triggered’ to try and process what you are feeding it, granted that you are sufficiently prepared for this task.

[NOTE: When I’m reading these things I break it down quite quickly my reading speed isn’t bad, so don’t feel intimidated if you think this type breakdown takes forever, it doesn’t. The mind works quickly.]

I haven’t read much of these books yet, just a page or two, since this will be a very intense process and I’m working towards it as I try to wrap up some other research. In the Sidney Sheldon book, I lightly skimmed the first page.

Looking at the first line, I immediately see a word I don’t know.


However, this isn’t an issue since I can read the Kanji. Here i’m seeing either “SHIN KA” or “MA NATSU”. Makes more sense that it is “MA NATSU”, since in the title of the book, the word 真夜中 mayonaka  means “mid night”, then I assume this means “midsummer”. So:


In midsummer in Athens, a baking sun shines. 

The important thing to know here, is that I know 照る which means to shine, and 点ける means ‘to turn on’. Since novels are filled with “flowery language”, this is an elaborate way of saying the sun is shining.

The second sentence is a bit more complicated, but perfectly demonstrates what i’m talking about.



So here I have a sentence that I can read, but I will have to really think in Japanese to get a sense of it. Looking it roughly,

行く手に見える繁華街  ikute ni mieru hankagai 

This feels like “going somewhere, able to see downtown/shopping center” then I looked up “ヨレヨレ” to see that is means, ‘swaying’ so:


“On the way, the shopping district’s buildings are swaying/wobbling and crumbling”

Second part of the sentence:


“Athens Police section chief, Gergiosu Sucri gazes at boats from the car window.”







So here i’m getting an intro to a character, a sense of the environment and I’ve learned some cool new words like ヨレヨレ and 繁華街 。As I’ve said, I’m not 100% at the point yet where I can casually read a novel like this. I’m a few steps behind, but almost there. For now i’m reading lighter, shorter stories and will tackle a novel directly in short order. But by setting the stage here, your mind is forced to ‘think in Japanese’ and create images in your mind and ideas based on what you think is happening. The process is quite fascinating. When I was reading some short stories, I was surprised to be making images of characters in my mind, clearly seeing environments and even getting a joke or two. I could not do this if I was not primarily thinking in Japanese. Of course I look things up and look up words I don’t know etc, but the idea when reading (especially extensive reading which I will write about) is to read at length without looking things up. This forces you to read things as they are, in Japanese and the brain does its thing that you start to just ‘get it’ after a while. Now the last step.

Train Recall Normally

I’ve said before that Japanese people do not walk around with dictionaries in their daily lives and my goal is to also not need one (at some point). I don’t say this as an extreme, but merely as an observation. Reading A LOT ensure this will happen, as you will encounter the various patterns in writing so often, you brain will ‘default to Japanese’ when you start reading. So what’s cool about light reading is that…

you can do it over and over and over and over. I can read page one of this book 50 times if I want to. Or read 10 pages and cycle back, read them again and move forward. The point is, to ‘think in Japanese’ I must (a) Set The Environment — most easily done with reading (b) Trigger the Mind — try and see whats’ going on and don’t look things up right away. Try and say the words, try and feel what a sentence might be saying, even if you are wrong. This starts the process of thinking in the language. (c) Train Recall Naturally — re-read interesting stuff or articles, get used to the patterns and expressions and your mind will naturally do the same.

Now, a major point to note is that resistance in this area is very very strong. Even though I was able to read Kanji for some time, I avoided reading for a while because just looking on pages of Kanji was intimidating, even for me! But there is probably no faster way to start this process. For an absolute beginner I would not recommend this as you wouldn’t be able to budge. You wouldn’t be able to read anything, understand the basic flow of sentences and so on. I found the more comfortable I got incrementally, the less intimidated I was by reading in general and then had little issue reading certain types of stories and short novels. Big novels have far more nuanced words, descriptions and grammar at times, but are still quite readable depending on the subject matter. The more you read, the more you think in Japanese. The more you think in Japanese the less bumps and hiccups while reading and it eventually starts to flow. You will just ‘know’ what a sentence is saying and not need to really look it up.

So that’s my article for today. Hopefully more to come cheers




About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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