Japanese Novel Reading Ability in Less than a Year?


Like many of you, i’ve dreamed of the day i’d be able to tackle a Japanese novel. As I get deeper and deeper into my learning systems having studied (5) languages, I am starting to see a ‘unified pattern’ emerging, whereas certain actions (across all languages) appear to have the most benefits, relative to accelerating one’s progress drastically. 

Being able to read novel, in any language, is one of the, (if not THE) strongest gauges of one’s language ability. Why? Because to be able to read a novel, you need a very high vocabulary and a reasonably strong sense of grammar, structure and the overall “feel” of the language. When reading you must imagine the scenes, hear the voices, and feel the tone of the writer’s voice. No one can ‘teach’ you this, they can only explain how you are able to get there. Only with an advanced ability does one do this.

Reading a novel is very binary in terms of your ability. If you cannot read it, you are not ready. If you can, you are. As simple as that sounds, getting there is the trick. So i’m reading through a novel called 真夜中の別の顔 mayou naka bestu no kao The Other Side of Midnight, by Sidney Sheldon. I’m going to list what i’m experiencing having gone through the first 100 pages.

But I kid you not, when the day comes you can read a Japanese novel without too much effort, you’ve reached God-level ability.

I will be perfectly honest here, my “ability” to read this novel came quite some time ago. I estimate that I was able to do what i’m doing now about 6 or more months prior. Life, health issues and then trying to understand where my research was going were the major delays, so I can emphatically say in my own words that in my experience it doesn’t need to take you more than 8-12 months to do this process. I say this tentatively, as we are all different, but before I dive into my observations, for those of you who are into rapid learning here is a quick breakdown. All we need is a quick top-down timeline for reference.

PHASE 1  – KANJI (3 Months)

I’ve designed a system that allows one to learn 2,136 Kanji in 8-12 weeks. While doing this research, in my first month I learned 1,009 Kanji (could have learned far more if I wasn’t try to do a bunch of other things at the same time) but arguments’ say it takes 12 weeks (3 months) to clear this hurdle


Now that the Kanji is sorted, (which is a very doable but very focused activity ) we are now able to learn words. Despite what the internet loves to say, you cannot simply “learn Kanji not by themself but with words” as the more words you learn you will find that it is imperative to know the single Kanji for verbs, adjectives and hundreds of single word nouns like tana 棚(shelf) kutsu 靴(shoes) ago顎(jaw) oka丘(hill). I have a data based approach to learning, so I know that across most languages learning the 5,000 high frequency words gives you access to 98% of written and spoken language. This is different for Japanese (you need more words) but I use this as a benchmark. So, if one learns 50 words per day, that is 1500 words per month. So you’ll hit 5000 words (ideally) in 4.5-5 months. Let’s just round off to 5. During this time, you can start collecting some grammar. Japanese has 5 grammar levels ,n1 (highest ) n5 (lowest). n5 has about 85 patterns to learn which are pretty easy. n4 120, n3 162 n2 196 n1 222. So you see as you go up it gets more and more challenging. I go through grammar in bursts (usually I try and learn 20 a day and then slow down and revise) so n5 is 5 days, n4 is 7 days etc. So in about 4 months I can cover everything (up to n3, or n2) with time to revise.


There are two major hurdles you will face during this journey. The main one is “internalization time”. You will need to not just learn words, but see them often enough to recognize it as an entire pattern, not just the individual Kanji. A Japanese person sees saikinbyou 細菌病(infectious disease) as one word. 東京 toukyou is one word but also 東京の塔 toukyou no tou (Tokyo Tower) won’t be confusing, as 塔 by itself is always ‘tower’. The Japanese see 水と水素 as “mizu to suiso” (water and oxygen) because (みず)by itself is always “water” and then 水素 (すいそ) is always ‘oxygen’. To get used to these things has only one path that i’ve found, which is exposure. We must have a way to be exposed to these words often enough to get used to the patterns. There are many approaches to achieve this, but the most convenient (and accessible) way to do this is with raw reading. Through raw reading, the brain is forced in a very natural way to really get the hang of things. You need to see the words you’ve learned many many times, and make many, many, many mistakes while reading them to compartmentalize verbs, nouns and adjectives and also the bazillion grammar patterns you have to learn.  This is a somewhat slow process in the beginning but very efficient.  There are ways to rapidly learn words, kanji and even grammar, but in terms of this I see know “quick” way to do this.

But you will find after a while, you’ll be able to read a lot of sentences without issues, understand spoken speech much better, and effortlessly plough through dozens of short stories. When the short stories, or novellas feel easy, you may start to get overconfident (or bored). This is when you go after your first novel. You are now ready.


At this point, all ‘pressures’ and ‘challenges’ you face will be mainly psychological. Because if you are able to read anywhere from 3,500-5,000 words and know grammar up to say, N2, your ‘ability’ to read is not the problem, it will be your toughness working through the heaps and heaps and HEAPS of words, phrases and what not that you are gonna encounter.

When you think you are ready for novels,  you will be dying to read them quickly. You will want to coast through the novels, go on adventures with rogue Samurai and dissidents living in Tokyo. You will have reading ability (relatively) and may feel overconfident, having learned Kanji and a few thousand words. You must be ready for a novel right?

WRONG.  The picture there is from my notes application on my iPhone. As I read I make a note of words and grammar I don’t know. Depending on the chapters i’ve read so far, on average, there are 40-65 words I don’t know, having already studied several thousand. This image is from one day of about 35 of reading. I just the first three parts of the book, i’ve probably learned 700-1000 new words i didn’t know and i’m just a 3rd of the way through! You will encounter new words at a furious and unrelenting pace. You thought you were a bad boy, coasting through novellas and short stories, but no no, this is the real deal.

I can’t remember which YT video I saw it in, but the person described Japanese as “having to know the entire dictionary before you can read the dictionary”. It is a language with so many words that you can’t just “figure” them out. In German, French and English, after hitting that 5,000 word mark, it isn’t difficult to learn new words in written context (and therefore not have to look up everything). In Japanese, if you don’t know the reading of a word, there isn’t really a way to know how it is pronounced, meaning you technically cannot read it. So every word you don’t know you have to look up.

船乗り funanori and 水兵 suihei both mean ‘sailor’. One may be closer to a ‘seafarer’, or ‘voyager’. But just looking at them does not tell us this. But Japanese writers’, as you will learn, like to use all their vocab. So they might use these two words in the same paragraph. They may write 寂しい sabishii(さびしい)sad, melancholy, or 淋しい sabishii(さびしい) same word, older form.

鎧 yoroi(よろい)is ‘armor’ and even if I can recognize the Kanji as ‘armor’ if I do not know the reading, I cannot read it. 装甲 soukou(そうこう)means ‘armor’ as well. You see, just like English, some words are symbolic, but some words are literal. A person can be wearing ‘armor’ (of some kind) or literally ‘metal armor’. A character may be a 娼婦 shoufu(しょうふ)prositute or a 売春婦 baishunnfu(ばしゅんふ)prostitute. Now one definition is probably closer to the word ‘harlot’ 娼婦. Since the word 売春 baishun literally means ‘prostitution’. The point is, this is how a novel starts, fast and furious.

Make a mental note that initially this process will feel incredibly slow. But patience is a virtue. The more you learn, the faster you will  go. 

Remember this was not written for YOU, oh ‘learner’ of the language! This was written for natives with a minimum of 2 decades worth of life experience (and word experience). This is written for people who live and breathe Japanese. This isn’t written with the expectation that a ‘foreigner’ might read it. So the writer’s go all out with descriptions and cool words, cuz hey, that’s what novels are! So be very aware of this. It will help you greatly psychologically. However, very quickly, you will begin to develop super powers:



The first major power will be what i call ‘differentiation’. When learning words in Japanese, you will find that there are certain principles in play. Word with consonants that meet each other tend to be pronounced differently. For example, a word like 躍起 やっきyakki which means (desperate, hurried) is really yaku + ki . But a lot of the time (not always) the U drops and there is a slight pause when you pronounce the word. I think it has to do with the ease of pronounciation. Anyhoo, your first super power (you actually develop this one early on) is that you’ll be able to figure out word pronunciation like this without looking it up and you will be right most of the time.


After a while, you’ll get a sense of all the readings for a variety of Kanji and then be able to figure out future readings because you brain is doing the 3d math. Lemme give an example。声 koe(こえ) 声高  kowadaka (こわだか) 大声 oogoe (おおごえ)

as you can see they call have the Kanji 声  which is from the group SEI.

As i’ve said before, when words join up, sometimes the consonant changes. Like “kata” will become “gata” as in 大型 oogata おおがた 髪型 kamigata かみがた。 Likewise “koe” which means voice, can become “goe” as in 大声 oogoe or 鼻声 hanagoe はなごえ (nasal voice).

At the start of the Japanese journey, having to learn all these different readings can feel incredibly daunting (and it is), but by the time you start reading novels, you will have encountered so many of these types of words that the new ones aren’t going to give you headaches. You see, I learned two words early on, which was koe  声 voice and kowadaka 声高 loud voice. I didn’t know any of those other words. In fact, as you learn new words, it is actually convenient to NOT learn all of the readings at once. In time you will learn them all gradually, which saves you some early stress.

So once you get a hang of tons of variable readings, you will have a “sense” of the pronunciation of many new words (and often be correct) which helps in memorizing them more quickly. You will also be hit with so many adjectives, grammar (as Kanji) and so on, that after a while just have to know it to read properly and the brain adjusts, and when you encounter the words you just read it as it is.


Even though I said its trickier to learn some Japanese words from context I didn’t mean it was impossible. For example, in the novel, the characters were talking about 中絶 chuuzetsu ちゅうぜつ (abortion) at at some point mentioned something happening to the “子宮” during the reading, I just figured this was the uterus, the womb, or something like that. The word shikyuu 子宮 actually means womb. I could tell that 救急車 was “ambulance” and so on. Sometimes, the context is obvious and you don’t even need to know how to read the word! This is when the language starts to become fun, because even if it is ONE word that you figured out by yourself out of 50 new words, you still get swag points. You will also have a far easier time reading  a sentence as a whole. You brain will figure out what the overall communication is, one you read enough. You will be able to tell when someone is pissed off, or being snarky, or is frightened out of their mind. If you are reading well enough, you will also feel it. You will feel their anguish and fear, and worry for the characters. You won’t just be mindlessly reading and translating, you will be enjoying the frikking novel. 


As you see the leaps and bounds you quickly make when working through a novel, you will realize where you will end up once you keep going. Even though every day you are still hit with 50 words or more you don’t know,  you are able to read them and them to a study list and keep going. At some point it will level out. The words keep showing up and you realize you don’t have to look them up. You have  day where you read maybe 90% of 3 full page without looking anything up, feeling ecstatic before hitting a monster page filled with so many verbs and nouns you want to weep. But you will know you are making progress. When you watching Japanese on Youtube, you will hear all these new words. You will be reading many subtitles in realtime and just “understand them” because you have put in the work. You can forecast to yourself “where will I be after 5, or 10 novels?” and the clear cut understanding of this will keep you going. Mind you, this is after mindnumbing amounts of effort learning to read the kanji, acquire words and train your listening far beyond 1,000 hours. But hey, that’s the fun!


After fighting through a few more thousand words and conquering a big fat novel, you will find that things like tweets, Netflix movie titles and even searching things on the internet (in Japanese) all feel a lot less scary. I hated reading tweets because at one point they were brutally difficult, since the contexts are so nuanced which made it difficult to know what was going on. Now, tweets aren’t as scary. I can read them, get the gist of what’s going on and also get a sense of people’s reactions by reading their reply tweets. Now do I need to read a novel to read tweets comfortably? Of course not! But for me, tweets presented a significant psychological block, but after tacking a behemoth like a big fat novel, reading through short little tweets (even if they are dense) isn’t so bad, especially with that new, monstrously robust vocabulary you are developing the world of Japanese twitter is opening up.

At the end of the day, Japanese people don’t walk around with dictionaries. They live and breathe the language. It isn’t weird for them to encounter “difficult” words, nor is it strange for them to read what you find very challenging. Only by aiming high and working through engaging in what a regular Japanese person can effortlessly read, do you then level up significantly. When I started this journey in late 2020, I knew it would take me around 3 months to test my Kanji strategy (and it worked). Then I knew I had several more months ahead to test vocabulary acquisition strategies (which worked, though I took waaaaaay longer than I was supposed to), thirdly, I was very hesitant to do reading. My mental block was serious, even after all of my wins, and I really got bored of repetitive “Japanese samurai ghost stories”. But I know that what you put in is what you get, and it is pretty much impossible to work intensely through an entire Japanese novel and gain no benefit. Impossible I say!

So with a lot of grind, it is possible to read a Japanese novel in less than a year, slowly but doable.




About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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2 Responses to Japanese Novel Reading Ability in Less than a Year?

  1. 救世 says:

    Being able to read a novel is a great way to test how far you’ve come with progress. Your methods seem possible as well. Japanese does have some hurdles compared to other languages but it is fun to see how all of your hard work comes to fruition.

    Still reading books for elementary and middle schoolers but started reading a light novel lately. It has been a great break into reading. It is hard at times but let’s do our best. Do you have any novels you’d recommend?

    • marcusbird says:

      Howdy! Oh man i’m sorry I’m just seeing these comments! Thanks for reading the article, and yes. Reading a novel is a great test, or in my experience a very painful wakeup call! Personally, what I suggest is trying to read novels that you’ve already read in English (so you have a sense of the story) or some kind of subject matter that is going to seriously interest you. There are many fabulous novels out there, but as I’ve experienced, you won’t really even be able to process or enjoy these books without having around an idea of N2 level of grammar and about 6,000 words under your belt. It takes a lot of mental grit to go through pages very slowly and honestly, it isn’t worth it as the frustration piles on. What i’ve found is after you find light novels get “easy”, you just see what else “feels” interesting and try your best there.
      In the beginning, I tried my best to read kids stories but found them very boring and repetitive. When I was researching “tadoku” or “extensive reading”, I found this site. Has a lot of stories at various levels that are good for rapidly accelerating your reading. I made a point to read all of these, (or as many as possible) at all levels until I felt like I was ready to aim for a novel. think its from A to H (H) being highest and when you have little issues reading through H level stuff, then you can jump into novels. BUT: i must note, even these stories I started to get a bit tired of. It was a lot of stuff about dead samurai coming back to life and samurai ghosts and samuria robberies lol, but hey its still Japanese! It might help.


      For novels you can check out this huge list of recommendations.



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