Unless you are already familiar with logographic writing systems, learning to read in Japanese is arguably the hardest of the four key language learning skills to master. Once upon a time, writing would have been ranked up there too, but with most writing these days occurring via computer or phone input, the difficult task of remembering the exact stroke layout of each character is no longer necessary as long as you can sound out and recognize (i.e. read) the character you wish to type. These days, becoming a skilled writer relies more on how you express yourself and structure your prose than on your handwriting prowess. And these too can benefit enormously from reading widely. So reading is crucial to being able to write well.
But reading is also important for many other reasons. If you can read well in Japanese, you can access a wide range of native written materials — picture books, novels, non-fiction, comics, historical records, poetry, blogs, your friends’ text messages, news articles, sports statistics, business emails, that friend of a friend’s poorly conceived tattoo, recipes, etc, etc, etc — which will in turn help you build your vocabulary and familiarize yourself with how grammar and other expressions are used naturally, so that you will also become better at Japanese speaking, listening and written composition. And that’s aside from all the fascinating cultural and historical insights you’ll be able to acquire about Japanese society, much of which are inaccessible without Japanese literacy.
Here are the steps to kick butt in reading Japanese. In time, all of these will link to articles with more detailed information and advice.
- Come to grips with the challenge ahead.
- Make a plan.
- Gather useful materials.
- Learn Hiragana.
- Learn Katakana.
- Learn Kanji.
- Start with the meanings of individual kanji.
- Then learn how these individual kanji are combined with hiragana and other kanji to form almost all the words and expressions you need to read Japanese. Learn the meanings of these combinations and how they are pronounced when read aloud.
- Get your grammar up to scratch.
- Read intensively and extensively.
- Read progressively harder materials (on progressively more interesting topics).
- Keep reading.
- Don’t stop reading.
- Only read stuff you like, unless you have to read it for work or school, in which case suck it up!
- Bask in pride knowing what an incredible feat you’ve pulled off. But don’t gloat too much. No-one likes a wanker.
Note: although the earlier steps are basically linear, from step number 6 onwards you should be working through the steps simultaneously. Otherwise you’ll die of old age knowing tens of thousands of kanji but never having picked up a book.