Learning beginner level Japanese can be frustrating at times when you want to be able to do more with the language. I often see people asking about reading materials for JLPT N5 and N4 level learners.
The trick is that most novels and light novels written by Japanese people for Japanese people. The Japanese language that native Japanese speakers learn is a little different from the Japanese non-native speakers learn. Which can make finding good books for beginner Japanese learners difficult.
However that’s why I want to introduce you to the magic of Japanese graded readers!
What are Graded Readers?
Graded readers are books written in a language specifically for people learning that language. They can be written on a variety of subjects, fiction, science, daily life, etc. They are split into different “grades” of difficulty, using grammar and vocabulary aimed at people of differing language ability.
This makes them great for beginner language learners who want to practice and improve their reading. They can practice the basic materials they’ve learned in natural contexts, as well as push themselves to read gradually more difficult materials.
Graded readers are also a great stepping stones between textbook reading exercises, and novels written for native speakers.
Here are some different graded readers for Japanese that are great for JLPT N5 and N4 learners!
How to Use Japanese Graded Readers
Pick a story that suits your level of Japanese ability. Each level is slightly different depending on the website but they normally range from Level 0 for JLPT N5 levels
Read the story without looking up any words. If you don’t know a word try and guess the meaning based on the picture and context. If there’s something you don’t understand then it’s okay to skip. You want to focus on reading and understanding the story as a whole, not every tiny detail.
If the story is too difficult it’s also okay to drop it and pick a different or easier one!
The aim of graded readers are to expose you to vocabulary, kanji, and grammar in a natural environment. To become comfortable with the practice of reading, so you learn to understand overall context and so it’s less daunting at later levels.
– Tadoku –
Free Graded Readers Online
Tadoku.org has a selection of free graded readers (which you can download here!)
Their stories are written in large, clear font with pictures to help you connect meanings. Even their 0 level stories have kanji with furigana. This is great if you’ve been learning kanji and don’t want a wall of hiragana (which can be harder to read.)
They also cover a variety of topics that you probably won’t see in most textbooks. Such as おでん, which is about oden and the various ingredients for oden; black and white objects 白い？黒い？; and a whole short story on strange everyday objects called これは何でしょう？.
Because these are self published and free they don’t have the most amazing illustrations, but they’re really good reading practice for beginners.
– Tadoku Books –
Physical Graded Readers with CD
Tadoku also provided more official paid-for physical books. These are roughly $30 a book and come with more stories than their free PDFs.
If you enjoyed the PDFs then these might be good ones to move onto.
– White Rabbit Press –
Paid for Graded Readers for Mobile
The graded readers are clearly divided in 5 levels, with what JLPT level you might be and how long the stories are. They also tell you roughly how many new words you’ll learn with each level. Any kanji comes with furigana and original illustrations for easy of reading.
They also come with audio narration so you can listen as you read, just listen to the audio, or mix it up. Thereby improving your reading and listening skills.
Their stories also cover a range of topics you might not find in a textbook, including Japanese and Western fairy tales, original short stories, and reiterations of American literature.
However, you only have pictures to guess the context of sentences and the meanings of words. This might work for some people, but not others.
You do, however, have to download their app and purchase each story separately. Each story costs around $3-$4, which is about the price of a coffee.
– First Japanese Reader –
Physical Book / ebook with YouTube Videos
This book isn’t exactly a graded reader but a bilingual reader. This means English translations of stories with English explanations.
It has 15 short stories in Japanese with literal English translations, then explanations for grammar and vocabulary. There is no furigana which might make these stories difficult for learners not used to reading kanji.
There are no pictures, however the clear grammar and vocabulary explanations help with that. If you’re the kind of reader who struggles to learn by context and need explanations, then this might be a better choice.
However the stories without furigana include vocabulary and kanji you learn around N3 and N2 level.
The book also comes with URL links to their YouTube with audio readings of all the stories.
You can purchase the physical or Kindle version of this book from Amazon for $9.99 (Note: this is an affiliated link). If you click on “Look Inside” on Amazon you can get an idea of the stories.
– Learn Japanese with Stories Volume 1 –
Physical Book of Classical Stories for Beginners
This also is not a graded reader, but it’s slightly different from First Japanese Reader.
You first get the stories broken down. Every word, every phrase, every kanji, every grammar is explained in minute detail.
Then you can read the full story in Japanese without furigana and without being interrupted. This is followed by the literal English translation if you get stuck.
The stories also come with MP3s which help with reading and listening. There are two MP3s for each story, one read slowly and the other at a regular pace. This lets you read along and shadow, then speed up when you’re more comfortable with the story.
I think this is great, but it feels like the stories aren’t adjusted to beginner level readers as much as the graded readers. Because these stories are classical tails they have a high difficulty spike with advanced N1 kanji and vocabulary thrown in.
The paperback costs $12.99 and the Kindle at $4.49 (Note: this is an affiliated link). You can get a better idea if this would be good for you with the “Look Inside” preview on Amazon.
Really how you learn is based on you. There is no “right” way to start reading Japanese. I suggest you take a look at the above readers and test out which one might be best for you.
The three graded readers are designed for beginners to practice and learn new vocabulary. So these might be good if you’re just starting out.
While the two bilingual readers are detailed breakdowns of classical tales, and might be better suited for people looking for a challenge.
Whatever you decide to read, it’s never too early to start reading Japanese!