Reading Doraemon to Murakami: 5 Self-Study Habits for Japanese Fluency | Guidable - Your Guide to a Sustainable, Wellbeing-centred Life in Japan

Reading Doraemon to Murakami: 5 Self-Study Habits for Japanese Fluency

By Guidable Writers Sep 4, 2017

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified) Spanish Chinese (Traditional)

I will start with the warning that, even as the method I outline involves learning Japanese without paying for language school, taking classes on at least the basics is a given prerequisite to language study. I was no exception because I took free classes taught by Japanese volunteers which I found out through information at the city hall when I first registered in a city. Study time at the desk or in classes is unavoidable, unfortunately for those who dislike studying. This is about how one can boost learning by reading books and listening to music that one likes.



Unfortunately, the human brain is not a microfiber sponge that sops up all of what is taught in class. What goes on outside of the classroom is essential for driving the nail home. If you are in Japan to work, like me, or for some other purpose that does not involve studying inside a Japanese university or regular school, then you are likely to be feeling the need for more practice. Here are some good habits to start in order to make what you learn stick.


  1. Start like a child and do not be ashamed of it.

First grade drill exercises for writing the kana are super easy and cute to boot. Assign some pages every day and go through that drill. And when you are done, erase and do all over again. Start reading children’s picture books and manga. Some examples of easy manga that are interesting for adults too are Doraemon, Conan the Detective Boy, Dragon Quest and Magi.


  1. Relax and learn to enjoy practicing your Japanese without stressing yourself.

If you force your brain to remember, remember just remember, you might end up remembering only for a short period of time and then forgetting all you have learned the next day. What you want to do is to remember your Japanese the way you learned to brush your teeth, like a habit that your body absorbs. And the way to do that is by practicing those language muscles. See and hear the language in action, inside books, music and on TV.



  1. When you have partial mastery of the basics, choose a music artist that you like and listen on the train, on the bus or as you walk

I commuted on the Marunouchi line listening to Shiina Ringo’s song that had the names of the station names in the lines. The song fit the mood of the train perfectly and made me enjoy going to work. There are a growing number of music artists and singers who add English lines into their songs. Some songs shouldn’t be too difficult deciphering the rest of the song in Japanese. I keep the lyrics book in hand as I listen and follow after the text. Sometimes the meaning of the line or the message of the song hits me after several listening and gives extra awesomeness to the experience.


  1. Learn to read without understanding 100%

When reading or listening to music, perk your ears to the part that you understand and let your imagination fill in the gaps. No one will blame you if you have your own version of the story in your head. Sometimes the reading guide or furigana appears on the first few pages. Mark and write the meaning with a post it and keep coming back to the translation when you forget.


Some people recommend reading with a dictionary near at hand. I believe the time it takes looking up a word at each point of the story will disrupt the flow of narrative and makes reading in a different language a chore. It is better, in my opinion, to interpret the meaning inside the context and simply move on.


With books that you especially like, read again from the beginning and you will discover something new. The same goes if you rent a DVD of a show you like.


When you want to move on from words with pictures and you want to try text-only written Japanese, try some of what I read. If you are a fan of fantasy you will enjoy these:


  • RDG by Noriko Ogiwara is about a young girl who struggles to assert herself even as she harbors a great spirit inside of her.


  • 6 by Atsuko Asano, is a series of SF books for juveniles. The depiction of utopic and dystopic cities transports the reader into a fascinating but dark world that will seep into one’s dreams.


  • 精霊の森人 seirei no moribito or Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi similarly has a

well-constructed fantasy world with a strong and admirable heroine that draws the interest of the reader.


  • Horror novels are an extra recommendation. When reading horror, your imagination does amazing work filling in the gaps of what you didn’t understand. And what you don’t understand adds to the thrill. I particularly enjoyed reading Yusuke Yamada’s 親指探し Oyayubi sagashi and Yukito Ayatsuji’s Another.


  • If you like an anime touch light novels are fun reads. Ryogo Narita’s Drrr and Baccano have crazy characters and lots of wild action. Ishin Nishio likes to play with words and has an overall sense of funk and fashionable wordiness.


  1. Look for stories that are available across different media.

If you read something that you already partially understand, your brain remembers details or you sometimes realize an important fact you didn’t first notice. Many of Keigo Higashino’s novels become movies such as Byakuya and Yogisha X no Kenshin and also novels by Miyuki Abe and Kanae Minato. Fuyumi Ono’s Shiki became an animation series and also RDG which was mentioned before.


Looking back at all I did to practice reading and understanding Japanese, I realize I might have ended up spending more time, possibly, than if I went to a regular Japanese school. But I don’t mind, and some of you won’t either, because learning Japanese was an enjoyable experience. If anyone else gathers a collection of easy novels and movies, I am welcome to exchange books. In the meantime, I will bury myself inside Keikaku Ito’s world inside 虐殺器官 or Genocidal Organ. I doubt I will surface from my shell until a while.