The Definitive Guide on Moving from textbook Japanese to reading real native Japanese using Manga

Making the transition from textbook-Japanese to actual native sources is difficult. I've been studying Japanese for over 3 years now and like many people I found it hard. I failed a lot, I still fail quite often when reading some texts but, it's a good thing, you're going to fail and each failure gets you a little closer. That said, it can be helpful to have a map to help you make the transition as painlessly as possible and that's what I'd like to have a go at providing with this post. All links in this post go to the Japanese editions of the manga.

The Secret Sauce to reading in another language

Are you ready? I'm going to share the amazing secret to reading in another language. Here it is:

When you start reading, you will never *ever* find a book you can comprehend 100%, it's a contradiction in terms, how can you learn if you understand everything already? You learn to read by reading. 

You struggle, you fail, you give up on some books and pursue others. You will never - ever - go from reading a foreign language textbook into easily reading a book meant for natives. It doesn't happen. At best what you will find is something you understand 60-80% any lower than that and you're probably going to get bored and give-up (as you should, it's too hard!) This means for every 6 or 8 words you understand, you're going to meet a grammar point or word you've never seen before!

If you can't understand a word / piece of grammar or get a rough meaning from the context of the book then, most of the time, SKIP IT! Don't grab a dictionary or the DIJG just jump over it. If the word comes up two or three more times and you still can't work it out, then that is a good time to interrupt your reading and go find out what it is.

That's the first part of secret - no one understands when they start but only begin to gain understanding by pushing forward. You can't be fully prepared, you just have to dive in the deep-end and give it a go.

The second part of the secret is; it gets easier the more you read. If you're reading all of Yotsuba for instance, they're all by the same author and she uses the same types of phrases, the same core set of vocab. Nearly every word you look up, you're going to meet it again and again and again. That's really going to help drill it in and as you get towards the end of the book it's going to get much easier to read. Therefore: long series and long books are preferable to short ones!

Beginner Beware: Shounen Manga

As a beginner it's not easy to know which books are easy and which are hard. Shounen literally means 少年 (しょう・ねん) few years (you should have had a good chance of being able to read this kanji as it's quite straight forward!) Shounen means "young boy" and shounen manga 少年漫画 are manga aimed at kids (although they're read by a much great age-range). Notable shounen manga include Dragon Ball, Naruto, Full Metal Alchemist etc  Manga aimed at young kids? Surely this will a be a perfect place to start, unfortunately not.

For instance Naruto, the popular Japanese kids comic- it's actually quite hard to read when you're beginning. The same is true for a lot of shounen material. A lot of slang is used (often made up slang!), they use a lot of causal contractions that you won't know from your textbook and the vocab is not day-to-day stuff, ninjas, nine-tailed-foxes, forbidden techniques - that's a lot of new vocab to learn, and it's hard to infer from the context of the story. Therefore, at the beginning I advise avoiding all shounen manga! Shounen manga is good as a goal to aim for; I buy plenty of books that I can't read ... yet :) they sit on my shelf waiting for me to get to that level. Starting off with something a little easier, that won't frustrate you with lots of slang and new vocab is the best path to kicking-ass in native Japanese materials.

Another book that's quite tricky to begin with is Doreamon, popular with children, it has plenty of contractions and no furigana.

1. Graded Readers

The is the first graded reader in the series - start here!

These are pricey but the do an excellent job of bridging the gap between textbook style Japanese and more native sources. You'll be able to understand a lot of the content straight from your textbook and have a great chance of inferring the meaning of words and grammar points you don't understand. These are the only decent graded Japanese readers that I'm aware of (I'm sure there are more in Japan).

The other great thing about this series is they build on each other, so words and points you learned in the earlier books are reinforced later on. They also come with clearly spoken audio-recordings and they use furigana (words above the kanji that tell you the reading).

2. よつばと Yotsubato (translated in English as Yotsuba&)

The first よつばと manga. There are currently 10 volumes.

This is a popular manga to start reading real Japanese. It's about a young girl called Yotsuba living with her dad, it's light-hearted and quite funny. Because it's a small girl speaking it's all pretty simple and it's quite light on kanji. You'll run into words you don't know - this is inevitable (and the only way to learn) but it won't occur quite so often as in other manga. The language is also easy to follow, it doesn't use a lot of slang and the pictures and situations give great context for inferring the meaning of things.

Here's a panel. Here's the text if you're using Rikaichan or something similar as a reading aid:


And with Kanji


Also being a small child Yotsuba is constantly asking questions, like: "What's this? What's that called? Why?" and the adults explain to her as simply as possible. You're not going to find many better manga for the Japanese learner that this one!

If you're in the states, you can order it - in Japanese - from the normal US Amazon. Awesome. It seems 8 volumes are available on in Japanese. 

Yotsuba 1 Yotsuba 2 Yotsuba 3 Yotsuba 4 Yotsuba 5
Yotsuba 6 Yotsuba 7 Yotsuba 8

3. After Yotsuba

Ok you've read your first manga - several volumes of it - and understood it pretty well, you'll feel good and confident so what's next? Crayon Shinchan is a good choice, it's like Yotsuba, small kid, everyday situations but it's far more crude. It's a good place to start picking up slang words and like Yotsuba because it's a small child there are lots of questions that are answered simply and you also start to learn a little etiquette as Shinchan breaches it and embarrasses his mother.  At the start you'll probably have a few more words to look up but it's worth doing.

I couldn't find an the Japanese version on US Amazon so this is
Here's an excerpt (they're usually in black and white):

Here's the text (some of it's a little hard to read on this because it's so small. A common problem if you download manga. I think I managed anyway):

お母さん> おかえりじゃなくてただいまでしょ

お母さん>ってストップしんのすけ      (しんのすけ is しんちゃん's fullname)

お母さん>スキップじゃない ストップ!止まれ!

新ちゃん> いすまで?アクション仮面はじまっちゃう
お母さん>だめよ!! 見てみなさいこれ

新ちゃん>どれ どれ?
お母さん>動くなって 言ったじゃなっ



新ちゃん> おお オラ (too blurred for me to read and I can't guess :( looks like 帰生的)

I read a few volumes of this before getting bored and deciding to move on to something else.

4. Ok you're starting to get good now

The field opens a little here and you can take a number of different paths and start reading what interests you! One manga I enjoyed around this time was Rabbit Doubt. It's about a group of people meeting up, who are playing this new phone game, but they're kidnapped from the street and wakeup locked up underground in an abandoned lab. They find out one of the group has been murdered and someone is picking them off one by one. If that sounds interesting - give it a try. (Doesn't get great reviews on the Japan on Amazon site, it's not available on the American amazon. But I loved it!)

Rabbit Doubt, psychological thriller but not too hard to read

You're free to pick and choose a bit at this point. Use google image search to search for manga then look at the panels and see if it seems too difficult for you or just right. Never be afraid to go for something that seems easy if you haven't tried it before.

A lot of shounen is worth giving a try now, if it seems like you understand most of it - go for it! I find with shounen, if your interested in the story, then it's worth finding some of the words you don't know beforehand and looking them all up (though this means flipping through the book which may spoil the story!).  The Wikipedia page is good for this type of word research, particularly if there's a English version of the page to check too. For instance Full Metal Alchemist uses the words alchemy (錬金術), alchemist (錬金術師), to resurrect (生き返る), soul (魂) - this is a very common word in shounen!, armour (鎧), state alchemist (国錬金術師) and so on.

If you feel like a challenge! I'd probably get a few more slice of life manga under my belt first though.

This post is still a work in progress - let me know your suggestions! I'm sure there's probably an easier step up from Yotsuba than Crayon shin chan. So it's not quite definitive yet - but hopefully with your help it will get there! :D
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