Want To Read Novels in Japanese? – Here’s How



I’m currently reading through 真夜中は別の顔 The Other Side of Midnight, by Sidney Sheldon, translated into Japanese. Several months ago I wrote a post about reading through my first short novella.

The God level goal for most Japanese super studiers is to be able to read through novels effortlessly right? Of course this is possible, with a major caveat. I’m at about 54 pages into this new novel and the progress was very slow in the beginning, and its starting to pick up. Lets’ break it down.

With Novels VOCABULARY is King.

You need around 6,000-10,000 words (or more) to comfortably read novels. There is no way around this. Just like English, there are a bazillion ways to say things, and writers like to say things their own way. As a test, after learning how to read the Kanji, I tried reading a page or two of a novel. Unsurprisingly, I was slapped ten times silly and sent careening backwards in my bedroom. You see, novels, are next level for a reason. It combines pretty much everything you will learn in Japanese. That is; nouns, verbs, adjectives, onomatopeia, esoteric terms, colloquial eexpression, collocations, etc. You need to have battled and lost a lot at trying to understand Japanese before jumping into a novel. They are big, dense, sometimes very literary and filled with so many words you might actually cry by how daunting it is. I already knew i’d need a ton of words to tackle a novel, but I didn’t understand the true cost. 

The True Cost

You need to know the true cost going in. If I were you, I wouldn’t even try to read novels until I hit 6-7K words and know my grammar up to an N2 level. The reason for this is that, with these two bases covered you have no issues learning new things in context. If you run into an expression, a new word or verb, you just learn it and move on. Nothing is “super frightening” if you can read it.  I might see a word like 無垢(むく)innocence, 執拗(しつよう)feverishly, diligently, or 薄紫(うすむらさき)light purple. These are not words you will see commonly anywhere. But in novels, you see them all the time. Visual descriptions require words for common situations and these words (hundreds of them) allow for what we call “depth” in expression and tone. Novels give you depth, at a massive cost… you need to drastically grow your vocabulary to even slowly read a novel.

To give you an example, so far in this book for each chapter I’ve learned about 50-75 new words. The book has maybe 20 chapters, so it is possible I will learn an extra 1500+ words from this book alone! But many of the words aren’t exotic, just regular things. Like 船乗り(ふなのり)sailor, or 店主(てんしゅ)storekeeper. But alas, 水兵(すいへい)also means sailor! Many of them are places and areas;

like 磯(いそ)rocky beach, 崖(がけ)cliff, 地中(ちちゅう)underground. They maybe be body parts you haven’t heard of, or ways to describe degrees of temperature like

生温い(なまぬるい)lukewarm.  Someone’s face might get 渋い(しぶい)grim, or a person can ‘dote’ on their child 溺愛(できあい)。You may know common words like 腕(うで)arm, or 胸(むね)chest/breast. But you may not know 腕前(うでまえ)prowess, or a word like 乳房(ちぶさ)breast. This is how novels, start. With these types of words and expressions, not to mention all kinds of creative uses of grammar.

In short stories they usually start with 昔あるところに、(むかしあるところに)”in some place a long time ago”. Or “an old man lived in a village” etc. Novels, are written like novels. 

The Strategy

There are two ways i’ve dealt with learning high numbers of words to balance my efforts and also not feel like a robot adding words mindlessly to anki. Adding 100 words a day to Anki will get you to thousands of words fast, but unless you have a hardore revision strategy, the words will get forgotten by the hundreds because they have no real connection to anything in your life, or anything you are directly absorbing. I’ve found there are two ways to learn words:


  1. You can learn words through raw Strategy (e.g a list of 5000 high frequency words


2.You can learn words by encountering them (in anime, reading, games etc)

I suggest going hardcore in LANE 1 as your starting point. Work through this as quickly as possible, with as much determination and focus you can muster up. Lane 2 (which tons of people like to suggest as a ‘fun’ way to learn) is extremely problematic if you are trying to gauge your progress in learning based on using data to see where you land relative to your overall goals.  Learning words by randomly encountering them is a problem for a few reasons. Firstly, you will have no idea if the words you are learning are useful (meaning to your current level) and secondly, you will have no way of tracking where you are relative to the larger subset of useful and then necessary words. What i mean by this is:

A list of 10,000 required words organized by frequency WILL get you to the promised land. However, learning this many words takes a good bit of time and strategy. If you live on Mountain Dew, have no friends, tons of disposable income, unfailing health and a brain that doesn’t tire, you can learn 10,000 words in perhaps 7-9 months, Maaaaaayyybe. I’m not even being negative here. In addition to learning words, we have well over 800+ grammar patterns to learn, plus we must log in thousands of listening and watching hours. Knocking out 50 words a day (1500 words per month) for 10 months straight is no laughing matter. You can easily hit 10K in a year and a half with little issues, but to absorb these words PLUS everything else requires a long forgotten ingredient.


I knew based on my research that after trying to read my first novel, I probably wouldn’t be comfortable attempting to read it again for another 6-8 months (depending on my consistency, health and motivation). LANE 1 can be stressful, even painful, but pays of greatly later down. Once you are able to read and understand context and then just “look up what you don’t understand” the game changes. There is a vast, vaaaaast difference between opening a page of something written in Japanese, having a complete brain freeze and weep uncontrollably, versus, being able to read through, get a sense of what is going on and look up other things. Once you reach this point, LANE2 is your destination.


If i’m reading through my book and I see “妻のぶらぶら体” (つまのぶらぶらからだ)。妻 is wife, and 体 is body. So this is some kind of body description. What the hell is “bura bura” I don’t know! So I look it up. (this expression means bloated body).

Consequently, if I see: 彼の顔が渋いした。(かれのかおがしぶいした。) If I dont’ know 渋い(しぶい)grim, I will read it as “his face turned into “something”. Then I look it up, and i move on.

Basically this is the process… it is very slow in the beginning, because initially (probably for your first book or two) a lot of the words you’ll have to look up. However the value here is immense. By encountering these words in context, having the ability to read in context, you vastly increase your likelihood of remembering them. When reading a novel, just like your native language you will “see” the images in your mind. So if the writer describes a woman with a ”まん丸お尻” (まんまるおしり)– perfectly round buttocks, not only do you learn the word, but you create a visual based on the character.

As you go through bit by bit, you collect words.  A lot of them. I find this process (at this stage) to be more interesting than learning raw lists of words. Here we are experiencing the language and as such building stronger memory roots.


Don’t worry about flawlessly reading Murakami and sending him petulant critiques via twitter. There is a giant canyon between you and high numbers of words and you can only access them through either  (raw lists —- which get VERY boring after you cross your first few thousand) and encounters (far more interesting and you still can get to 50-100 words per day depending on how much you read with the benefit of context and visual memory aides).

I am treating this novel as a game. I look up every word I dont’ know and add it to my daily list. I revise these words with anki each day. Then more often than not, these words repeat throughout the chapter, further cementing them. After a while, I’ve found myself reading through entire pages rather quickly, because I know all the word. Then i’ll get hit with a barrage of words I don’t know and have to slow down.

What’s great is that, at some point down the road, you will know so many words that you will be able to read most of what you encounter, anywhere. But I’ve found there isn’t really a “super fast” way to get here. “Fast” is relative to time, meaning, I can learn 100 words a day and blaze a trail, but i’ve found going that hardcore lessens the impact of internalization (meaning these words just get forgotten very quickly). Reading a chapter about a 船乗りの娘 sailor’s daughter who remembers being in a ship that is 生臭い(なまくさい)stinky fish smell gives me far more ammunition to remember it, than just a sentence on a white background.

Again this requires INCREDIBLE patience. You just can’t “speed” up this part of the process. Even if I’m learning 50 words per day I wont’ hear them immediately in speech. My mind has to get used to them. If feels slow, but the compound effect is blazingly fast, and quite incredible to behold. After going through just 54 pages, I find myself reading twice as fast through the novel, because i’ve covered a lot of high level words (that repeat) and i’m getting better and figuring out things in context.

So the first novel, the very first one, learn EVERYTHING you can from it. All the expressions, weird descriptions, funky words, and ways to express things. Trust me, when you hit 100 pages you will feel like you are in a different world.

Now… what kind of novel should you read?

This is a bit subjective, but i will try my hand at it. I will be honest, I hated reading short Japanese stories. They were all about Samurai and ghosts and the themes were very repetitive and boring to me. They also weren’t very visual. Lots of repeated names, simple grammar with a one difficult word here and there. They weren’t always “easy” to read, but I didn’t find them interesting. You must read something that you will have no issue spending 15-20 hours on.

I like Sidney Sheldon novels and also the feel of a physical book, so I’m good to go with that. I have LOTR on my iPad which i’ll tackle at another time. Each writer has their style. Some use lots of dialogue, heavy literary tricks or loads of description. I figured a Sidney Sheldon novel would be a nice mix. Not too high literary (which wont’ help me since its a first novel, and I wouldn’t be able to appreciate such writing anywyas) and then not too basic (boring, no visuals). I tried reading Harry Potter and stopped after the first page. In fact, I tried a few books and the Sidney Sheldon one just felt like me. Sure I can read other novels, but this novel is the one I want to sit with and break apart. This novel is the one I want to read from cover to cover, knowing that I looked up almost everything I read and that I gained a massive understanding of the language from the endeavor.

The goal is to just grab any novel and start reading it, but that won’t be possible in the beginning. It may take 3-5 novels to start getting the ease of reading (maybe just 2 I dunno) but whatever the case, you need to have that first one you really bite into, tear it apart, learn everything and then massively level up. When you get to be able to discern these levels of description, the language massively changes.

Someone can be waiting 待てる(まてる)or they can be lurking 潜む(ひそむ).

A person can be a man 男 or look manly 男っぽい。A person can be おおき(big) or 巨漢(きょかん)a giant man. A lady can be feminine 女らしいor cynical  皮肉. Only by knowing these types of words can you enjoy the stories and the situations and characters. on a deeper level.

So quick recap:

  1. To learn words in context, handle the grammar and vocab load you’ll be encountering, I think you need to know at least 4-5000 words and learned grammar up to N2. If you haven’t, there will be just “too much you don’t know” and the book as you see it will all  be noise. Put it this way, for me, having already learned several thousand words, all of N2 and a bit of N1 I am still crawling through certain pages of the novel. I am reading the novel and following the story relatively well, but this wouldn’t be possible if I wasn’t able to handle what is before me. Remember, this has a massive compound effect. The more words you learn the faster and faster you go until most of what you read self-reinforces. Working intensely through you first novel or two will most certainly guarantee quantum leap in your Japanese.
  2. Pick a novel that you gameify. Something you pick up everyday and work through a few pages at a time. You aren’t trying to read for speed, but for absorption and overall comprehension. You are treating that first novel like the holy grail of your future language ability. Try your best to understand the sentences, look up anything that you don’t 100% understand. Trust me, in the beginning it feels like a serious grind, but then when the grammar patterns begin to repeat over and over in different contexts, your brain does the rest of the work for you. Learning is best done after a while “in the wild”. You want to tackle something a Japanese person reads effortlessly. You want to experience a wide variety of language data, so much that you brain forms its own reference matrix and then you’ve hit the mountain: being able to read Japanese novels.

About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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