I love to read Japanese books. Next to news articles, reading Japanese books – novels in particular – is my favorite way to improve my overall skill in the language.
However, lately, I’ve felt like my Japanese has been stuck in a bit of a rut. I took a break from studying Japanese (or even using Japanese at all, really) for a few months. About a month ago, I started reading articles again. But I also really wanted to get back into novels.
The problem was that I felt like just “reading” novels wasn’t enough. I wanted to study them. I wanted a way to learn the unknown words and phrases I encountered. Ideally, I also wanted to improve my Japanese listening skills at the same time.
So, in an effort to get serious again about my Japanese studies, I’ve been trying a new learning method. My approach utilizes Amazon Kindle books, audiobooks, and flashcard/Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) packages. Using this method, I can practice both listening and reading simultaneously – and build my Japanese vocabulary along the way.
In this article, I outline the details of this method for anyone else who might be interested. I also give some advice for using the method effectively so that you don’t find yourself overwhelmed in a sea of flashcards.
Read Japanese Books: The Basic Ingredients
To use this method, you’ll need three things:
- An account on Amazon.co.jp to buy Japanese Kindle books
- An account at audiobook.jp
- A flash card or SRS program like Anki
How to Read Japanese Books on Kindle
To read Japanese books on Kindle, you’ll need to create an account on Amazon.co.jp. If you live outside of Japan, I advise using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to do this. In my experience, you don’t need a credit or debit card issued in Japan to buy Kindle books overseas. However, Amazon JP may demand that your initial connection appear like it’s coming from inside Japan.
Unseen Japan recommends Cyberghost VPN for your Japan connection needs. (Affiliate link; we earn a commission if you make a purchase.) Once you get connected and create an account, find a book you want to read and try and purchase it.
Once you’ve managed to make a purchase, you can read Kindle Japanese books using a Kindle or the Kindle app reader for your desktop, smartphone, or tablet. You don’t need to download a Japanese version of the Kindle app. Just download whatever version you can find and log in with your Amazon JP credentials. The Kindle app will automatically find which regional store your given set of credentials belongs to.
An Audiobook Site Account (Audiobook.jp or Kindle)
Next up, you’ll need an account for a site that retails Japanese audiobooks. This can be a little more tricky. Some sites (such as Amazon’s Audible) employ region detection. Audible prohibits purchases unless you’re using a payment method tied to a Japanese bank. This sucks, as the audiobooks for some extremely popular series (such as Nishio Ishin’s Monogatari series) are only available through Audible.
That said, I was able to sign up for Audible Unlimited over a VPN using a US credit card. Once I did that, I was able to log in to Audible via the iPhone app using my Amazon JP credentials. (If you try this, make sure you change the drop-down at the bottom of the app so that you can log into your Audible JP account.)
An easier option than Audible for non-Japan resident learners is to sign up for an account with Audiobook.jp. Audiobook also has its own app for iPhone and Android. And it seems to be easier to sign up for and use an account from outside of Japan.
The only downside of Audiobook.jp is that its selection isn’t as good as what you’ll find on Audible. Their focus is more on business and self-help books as opposed to fiction. If non-fiction is more your speed, Audiobook.jp will work well for you. There are still a couple of pretty good fiction audiobooks on the site, however. (I’ll link to a few at the end of this article.)
A Flashcard/SRS Application (e.g., Anki)
Finally, for this method, you’ll need a flashcard program. There are multiple flashcard apps available for Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android. Most incorporate some form of Spaced Repetition System (SRS), a system where the frequency with which you see a flashcard changes based on how well you know it.
One of the most popular SRS apps for Japanese study is Anki. Ank is free for use on Windows and Mac and a free port (AnkiDroid) exists for Android. Unfortunately, if you want to use it on the iPhone, it’ll set up back a one-time fee of $24.99. (Anki’s developer uses the high iPhone app cost to compensate himself for his work and pay for server hosting costs. Which is fair.)
I’ll use Anki for the rest of this tutorial because it’s what I use. However, you may also want to explore other options, such as Memrise and Quizlet.
Read Japanese Books: The Method
You now have everything you need to get started! The method itself is pretty simple:
- Find a book you want to read (or re-read) for which you can also find an accompanying audiobook. (I give some suggestions below.)
- Listen chapter by chapter.
- As you listen, turn sentences you find interesting or that contain unknown voicabulary and turn them into flashcards.
- Listen and re-listen to a chapter until you feel comfortable you can roughly understand it.
I prefer making flashcards out of sentences rather than individual vocabulary words. With sentences, you retain the context in which a word is used. And studying sentences gives you repeatable patterns of expression. By studying sentences, you’ll learn new patterns of expression that you can eventually use to express your own thoughts in Japanese.
Creating Flashcards from Sentences
My method for sentence mining is pretty simple. I listen to an audiobook chapter by chapter. As I encounter interesting expressions or words I don’t know, I copy them from my Kindle book and add them to an Anki flashcard.
My flashcard setup is pretty simple. I create a blank deck in Anki. When I encounter a sentence I want to study, I click the Add button on my phone and input it. (Note: Japanese UI for Anki depicted in picture.)
An Anki card is created by first creating a note. Anki supports customizing notes to your heart’s content. Here, I’m just using Anki’s Default note type. It’s a simple format with two fields: Front (of the card) and Back. Front is what you need when the card first displays; Back is what displays when you flip the card over.
What to Put on the Back Side of Your FlashcardsThe best feature of the Monokakido app is that it enables you to purchase and search across multiple Japanese dictionaries at once. Click To Tweet
So what goes on the back of the card? Typically, I paste the definition for the word or phrase from the sentence I’m trying to learn.
You can paste one of two types of definitions: Japanese->English, or Japanese->Japanese (i.e., a definition from a native, monolingual dictionary). I generally use J-J definitions as I have JLPT N1 level Japanese.
The app I use for J-J definitions is 辞書 by Monokakido. The best feature of the Monokakido app is that it enables you to purchase and search across multiple Japanese dictionaries at once. I use two that I’ve found extremely useful:
- The Daijirin (大辞林) dictionary . Popular among learners just transitioning to monolingual dictionaries because its definitions tend to be easy to read.
- The Kanji Kentei Kanji Dictionary (漢検漢字辞典). Useful for those studying for the Kanji Kentei. Generally useful to all learners for its in-depth kanji definitions and dictionary of four-character compounds (四字熟語; yoji jukugo).
That said, don’t feel compelled to use monolingual dictionaries if you don’t feel ready. If you’re still struggling to read J-J dictionary definitions, use a J-E app like Midori (or an equivalent app for your native language) or a site like Jisho.
Dealing with Kindle DRM Copy Restrictions
One downside of this method is the Kindle Digital Rights Management (DRM) restrictions. On most books, Kindle will limit how much text you can copy out. You’ll likely be able to copy and paste a few pages’ worth of sentences using this method. At some point, however, your Kindle reader will tell you that you’ve reached your copy limit.
At this point, you have one of two options. The first is to highlight the sentences as usual but type them manually into your SRS program. This isn’t a terrible option! Typing out the sentences you want to learn can help greatly with memorization. However, it does add time to the card creation process. If you’re already pressed for study time, this might not be an attractive workaround for you.
The second option is to break DRM on your Kindle books to allow for unlimited personal copying. You can do this using a combination of Calibre and a DeDRM plugin for Calibre. (For legal reasons, I won’t link to the DeDRM plugin here. Suffice it to say that it’s easy to find on Google. Unseen Japan opposes piracy and does not endorse breaking DRM for anything other than personal use.)
To convert your Kindle books, you’ll need to install Calibre and the DeDRM plugin. You’ll also need to download the Kindle books to your PC or Mac using the Kindle desktop app.
Once you’ve downloaded your Kindle books, find the .amz files. (In the Kindle app, go to Tools->Options->Content to find your books’ storage location.) Import each .amz file into Calibre.
This should be sufficient if all you want to do is copy freely from the book and create flashcards on your computer. If you want to read the file on your phone and tablet, convert it to a different format, such as MOBI. In Calibre, right-click the book, select Convert Books, and then select Convert Individually.
One issue you’ll encounter during conversion is that furigana (kana placed over kanji to show their pronunciation) will be rendered inline. This obviously complicates copying the text. To get around this, you can go to Search and replace in the conversion dialog and enter the following search/replace regular expressions. This will strip out all furigana during the conversion process.
The resulting MOBI file is an ebook from which you can copy unlimited sentences. You can upload it to an ebook reader app for your phone or tablet such as Pocketbook Reader.
Advice for Learning
While this method is simple, it can get overwhelming fast. In particular, many learners struggle with the default configuration of Anki. People add new cards too quickly and, before they know it, they’re buried in a pile of hundreds of reviews a day.
I’ve also struggled with Anki burnout in the past. So I’ve set some ground rules for creating sentence decks from books.
Make an SRS Deck Per Book
There’s no shame in throwing a flashcard deck away when you’re done with it! To prevent reviews from growing out of control, I’m creating a separate Anki deck per book I study. I plan to keep the deck for the current book around for maybe a few weeks after I finish the book completely. After that, however, I’ll likely archive it and move on to a new deck.
Beware Clipping Overly Long Sentences
Sentences are great for preserving context and learning reusable language patterns. However, they can get tedious to review. It helps to select only sentences – or even portions of sentences – that are a manageable length. Don’t try and study run-on sentences that are a paragraph long!
Don’t Get Hung Up on Everything
You might hear a lot of words you don’t understand on the first go through a chapter of an audiobook. Don’t stress about capturing absolutely everything you didn’t understand. Aim to get a general sense of what’s happening in the chapter first. Capture the sentences you think seem key to comprehending the text. Then, on repeated listens, you can drill in deeper to individual words and expressions you still can’t understand.
Read Japanese Books: Some Books to Get You Started
There’s a ton of content on Amazon JP, Audible, and Audiobook.jp. I can’t possibly list all of the fiction and nonfiction works you might be able to find using this method. But here are a few of my personal recommendations based on books I’ve read and am currently studying.
(Note: All links to Amazon JP are affiliate links; Unseen Japan earns a small commission if you make a purchase.)
I Want to Eat Your Pancreas (君の膵臓をたべたい)
Winner of 2016’s Japan Bookseller Award, Pancreas by Sumino Yoru is a heavy but engaging coming of age story of a boy who befriends a girl who’s dying of an unspecified pancreatic disorder.
I Had The Same Dream Again (また、同じ夢を見ていた)
Also by Sumino Yoru, her debut novel about a young, friendless girl who befriends a number of mysterious older women is also a compelling coming-of-age tale. Somewhat lighter fare than Pancreas and more accessible for intermediate learners!
The Ring (リング)
The novel that started it all. Suzuki Koji’s book is an engaging read. I’d even declare the descriptions of That Video to be scarier in print than they are in their cinematic renditions.
The Monogatari Series (物語シリーズ)
A young man gets turned into a vampire. But he got better! Now, he has to help his friends who are also plagued by supernatural afflictions. A quasi-harem anime that transcends its genre, Monogatari is marked by occasionally complicated Japanese and intricate wordplay.
There’s a lot of advice out there for beginning Japanese learners. But there’s little advice for those who are intermediate and advanced but want to push their Japanese up to the next level. There’s even less advice for those looking to read Japanese books and novels for the first time.
Hopefully, this article gives you a few ideas on how you can continue to expand your Japanese language knowledge. And I also hope you have a little fun along the way!
 Spaced Repetition: A Guide to the Technique. e-student.org
 Midori for iOS
 How to remove furigana when importing .epub files. LingQ Forum
 PocketBook Reader