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Reading Japanese


Let's take care of an important question right off the bat. How do you learn kanji? Many people sit down and start pounding them into their heads with flash cards or by using James Heisig's Remembering the Kanji method.

Don't do those things.

"The secret of mastering kanji is to learn them one by one, not in isolation, but in connection with their use in actual writing. To learn Chinese characters independently of their use in the context of a sentence requires a lot of time, time which is probably wasted." - Makato Sugawara, Nihongo: A Japanese Approach to Japanese.

The True Preliminaries

Written Japanese is a language. It is not a bunch of symbols that you just need to learn how to decode. Before learning how to read, you must learn the language.

Get hold of Beginning Japanese, parts 1 and 2 by Eleanor Harz Jorden, and Reading Japanese by Jorden and Chaplin. Go through lessons 1-10 of BJ at which point you can begin lesson 1 in RJ, which is a related text. From that point, advance one chapter at a time in each book: cover lesson 11 in BJ and lesson 2 in RJ, and so on.

When you have finished with those books, get a copy of Japanese: A Manual of Reading and Writing by Chaplin and Martin. This book is meant to introduce you to 881 kanji in the context of their various uses the written language. It is an excellent book in that it contains the Japanese writing, in a brief text and drill sentences that introduce about 25 kanji per chapter, along with transliterations of the Japanese text and translations of all of it. It is not a language text, however. It is designed to teach you how to read a language you already know, so do not start learning how to read with this book.

Chaplin and Martin introduce you to many words that are normally written in kanji but are not so written in their book because those kanji are not included in the list of 881 characters. This gives you the opportunity to learn many more than the 881.

Macintosh computers have a Japanese language capability that is stunning. If you have one, change the keyboard to Hirgana and start typing from the transliteration pages. The correct Japanese text will display on your screen, along with the appropriate kanji if one belongs there. This is how you will uncover the added kanji that you can learn in addition to the 881 presented explicitly.

It's not strictly that easy, though. There are many homonyms in Japanese, and Mac will present you with choices. You have to refer to a character dictionary to select the right one.

Here's another Mac feature: type into the Text Editor. There is a feature (Format →Make Layout Vertical) that allows the text to be printed out vertically. This feature also starts the text on the right side of the page, so the whole thing will read like Japanese is supposed to.

IMPORTANT! While you go through these books, you must do two things: work every day, and review what you have already read. The review is especially important. There is a lot of information on spaced repetition on the Internet that you can read to make out a review schedule, but at least review today what you read yesterday, and also what you read one week earlier. If you don't review, what you studied will not become permanent.

When you have finished that book, get a copy of Strategies for Reading Japanese by Setsuko Aihara. This is the only book out there that walks you through the structure of a sentence so you can figure out how the parts relate to each other to express the intended meaning. You can't skip this step.

These are a few rules I find helpful in organizing making sense of a sentence:

Particles seem to be confusing, but they are not. They follow strict rules of usage. In most cases their meaning is governed by what is it that came immediately before the particle.

Now Start Reading

Once you've assimilated all of this, get started with dual-language books. They're all over the place, you shouldn't have any trouble finding them. Make it a point to know what everything on the page means and what its function in the sentence is.

Two reference books that will help you immensely throughout your studies are:

This web site is invaluable for finding the meaning of words or set phrases you don't know: Jim Breen's Online Japanese Dictionary