Broaden your view: reading VNs in Japanese

JP VNs While there are still many great translated novels left for me to read, I decided to no longer limit myself to only translated ones. I have a lot of untranslated titles I really want to read, and I’ve finally reached the point where I know enough Japanese to be able to follow a visual novel of medium difficulty. By enough I mean I’m able to understand grammar and can read basic sentences with the help of parsers and text hookers, which allow me to open a dictionary to all vocabulary and kanji. Mind that using these tools has nothing to do with reading a machine translation, these are only for distinguishing words and looking up kanji. In this article I will write a bit about firstly the steps I took to be able to read easy Japanese VNs, secondly about my learning progress and difficulties I encountered and last, what my experience was with certain VNs I read, including difficulty and my progress in Japanese while reading. This post links to a page that contains my experiences with the Japanese in certain novels, that page will be updated everytime I tried or finished a new VN in Japanese. At the end of that page I also made a list for myself to keep track of what I want to read in the future and what level of Japanese I will probably need to read it.

Learning Japanese for the purpose of reading VNs
Let me first talk about the steps I took when I started learning. Even though I was going for the bare minimum of knowledge I need to read Japanese VNs, learning was a slow process for me since I have a job for at least 40 hours/week.

Alphabet
You can’t properly learn a language if you don’t know the alphabet, well lucky us! Japanese uses a total of 3 alphabets, where 2 of them are Japanese and 1 of them is borrowed from the Chinese, kanji. kanji is an alphabet of which the total amount of characters is not definitively determined, but it’s between 50,000 – 85,000 characters. But it’s okay, the Japanese language uses only 2000 – 3000 of these characters. Well that outlook wasn’t really motivating, but fortunally for us, we can circumvent this long learning process by using tools like Translation Aggregator (TA) and ITH. You can really get a long way using these tools, something I unfortunally only realized the first time I started using them, which made me go through some unmotivating kanji studies.
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Mind that kanji plays an important role in the Japanese language. It is a common misunderstanding that Kanji is unnecessary, or just makes Japanese harder to understand. If anything, knowing kanji makes the Japanese language a lot easier. My purpose was to learn enough Japanese to easily read through 90% of the non-translated VN titles. For this purpose, especially in the beginning stages of the learning process, kanji is not a necessity at all. If you however want to really learn Japanese now (or eventually!) it is wiser to not just ignore the kanji: when starting your study, also if you take the approach of -learning Japanese for the sake of reading VNs- try not to neglect learning kanji and try to pick up as much characters on the way.
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I started learning hiragana by writing a bunch of them every day. I started learning katakana in the same way but got really confused because the characters look a lot like each other, so it was a bit harder for me to learn. Finding myself having trouble to remember what I’ve learned, I started using Anki. This is a program that works with flashcards and it helped me remembering all katakana in just a week and to print them in my long term memory. I really recommend trying to use Anki from the beginning of your studies. If you need a short guide to get everything you need and set everything up, you can find it here.
Learning kana was really easy on me, so motivated as I was, I decided to also start learning kanji radicals. The radicals are the building blocks of kanji, and the way I understand it is that kanji radicals are like “letters” in the kanji “words”. Some radicals actually have a meaning, but a lot of them are just like letters, building up the kanji. Recognizing the building blocks would make it easier to learn the kanji, and there are only ~250 of them. I started learning about 25/week with Anki. After a month my motivation was completely gone and after 2 weeks I noticed I forgot half of the radicals I learned.

Learning kanji made my progress feel way too slow. If you are really just interested in reading VNs, let them be for now, they are really hard on your motivation. “With only knowing hiragana, katakana and a few kanji you can’t read anything!” – was how I felt at the time. At this point I decided to start focussing on learning grammar.

Grammar
I started reading Tae Kim’s grammar guide, which is I think one of the most recommended Japanese grammar guides on the internet. Every day I read a little bit and I finished up to “Advanced grammar” in 2-3 weeks. In this first read-through I didn’t write anything down and just let myself get used to the way the language works, trying to just understand all things I read. This means I forgot the details by the time I finished it. I re-read “Basic grammar” again, this time taking some minor notes. My motivation started to waver and I decided it was time to finally try a VN, to see what I could understand from it.

I installed ITH and TA with this guide. This is what it looked like when I set everything up (this is a recent screenshot -July 2015-).
ley-line jparserThe green and purple blocks separate words. As you can see in the bottom line of the TA, there are furigana (hiragana above the kanji), but you can also change it to romaji if you like (top line). If you hover over the green and purple “blocks” a vocabulary pops up and you can find the meaning to kanji and vocabulary you don’t know. That sounds really easy, but for one word you might get a list with 10 possible meanings. It also mentions what conjugation state the word could be in grammar-wise, but you have to rely on your own grammar knowledge if you want to understand the sentences.

Tae Kim’s grammar guide has a lot of examples and even some exercises, but after you are done reading through and studying the grammar, your knowledge is “raw”. You only have the fundamentals, so you need to take those into practise for the first time and this was harder than I expected. My only goal was to read VNs, so I started searching for some recommendations for a first read on beginner level. Most of the time people recommend short VNs that are voiced and don’t have complicated plots: moege are generally recommended. At this point my raw studies were over and from here on I will talk about my learning experiences through reading VNs.

Personal learning experience through VNs

Learning logs of 2014 and before

Sept 2013 – My reading VNs in Japanese journey started disappointing with Hanahira!. I figured a moege might actually not be optimal at all to start with for me. Since I usually avoid the genre I’m not used to the characteristic Japanese cutesy speech a lot of characters used in this. It was very confusing to me compared to the “normal” words and grammar I learned. So, Hanahira! was not a great choice to start with for me but it might be perfect for others.

Nov 2013 – Not knowing where to start, I decided to just try a short VN I already read in English: Saya no Uta. I already knew what the story was about, so I focused on recognizing the grammar in the sentences. Since I knew what it was about, I read the Japanese sentence word by word and tried to grasp it’s meaning with Tae Kims grammar guide next to it, ready to review what I didn’t understand. I was surprised how well this worked and thought it was a pretty good method to test your “real” knowlegde of grammar. A downside was that, reading Saya no Uta in Japanese this way, took me a week to complete compared to the ~10 hours it took me in English. But a great upside is the motivation I gained after finishing it.

Feb 2014 – After not reading any VNs in Japanese for a while I decided to start Gekkou no Carnevale, a VN I’ve been wanting to read for years. While I didn’t know anything about the difficulty, I really wanted to read it so I just tried it. Reading the intro took me a long time (2-3 days) because I had to review some grammar I didn’t understand. After being comfortable with the grammar again I got into the story and read it through, and finally finished it in Dec 2014. Why it took me so long? Because this was actually too hard to comfortably read for my level of Japanese. I had to regularly look things up, but I have learned a lot by reading this and I don’t regret picking it up so fast.

Sept 2014 – Next to Gekkou no Carnevale I started reading Eden* They Were Only Two, On The Planet. I had some trouble with this in the beginning. After searching and asking around a bit I noticed my approach was the problem. I am still reading too much like a “non-japanese person”, how weird that may sound. It is actually easier to read in whole sentences, like you’re doing automatically in your own language, instead of word-by-word.

As you can see I’ve been through quite some trial and error while picking my first VNs. It is important to orientate yourself on the reading difficulty of a VN to efficiently progress in learning.

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How to determine how hard it will be for you to read the VN that piqued your interest?

Step 1: Read the description and tags thoroughly (vndb): you might be able to strikethrough VNs which are known to have difficult story topics (hard sci-fi, kanji puns, supernatural, etc.)
Step 2: Google a bit: maybe somebody wrote a little article or review about how difficult the language is in this VN. Also, some writers are (in)famous for their unique or difficult writing styles, but you can always give that a try if you feel comfortable.
Step 3: Install the VN, read the prologue and if you feel you’re still doing ok, read atleast an hour in.
Step 4: Be strict! If you are still ok, go for it! But if you feel like you don’t follow the story too well, feel like the sentences are too long (you’ve already forgotten the beginning of the sentence when you arrived at the end) or feel like you just can’t have a somewhat comfortable read-through for any reason: leave it for another time and repeat these steps to look for an easier VN.
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Picking your VNs
In the way I described above I tried some VNs and based on that I made a table for reading difficulty and the knowledge I think I need to be able to read novels in certain categories. From now on, whenever I finish a VN I’ll put it in a category and explain why I think it belongs there. I’ll also try to find out what category VNs I haven’t read yet fall in. This will make it easier to pick VNs that match my knowledge and I hope this will be helpful for other people who search for certain reading difficulties in VNs too, since finding out if a VN is too hard for you takes up some time.

Table with difficulties and knowledge needed to be able to comfortably read a VN of that difficulty

Knowledge  Easy Motiv. Medium Medium Motiv. Hard Hard Hardcore
Hiragana/Katakana +  + + +  + +
Essential grammar + +  +  + +  +
Advanced grammar (+) + + + +
Common vocab  – (+) + +  +  +
Advanced vocab  –  – +  +
Common kanji  –  + + +

Advanced kanji/ understand kanji

 –  +

Explaination table

– Knowledge needed is assuming you’re using the help of a texthooker and jparser.
– Hiragana and katakana are a must learn before you are planning to read anything in Japanese. They are in the table for the sake of completeness.
– Meaning of “understand”: you’ve learned the “raw” fundamentals, meaning you don’t have (much) experience applying them in text.
– Meaning of “comfortable”: you’ve learned the fundamentals through reading, you thus have some reading experience, meaning you’re somewhat practiced in applying your knowledge.

Easy –  For this difficulty you have to understand essential grammar to grasp the meaning of most of the sentences.

Motivational Medium – Easy reading difficulty with some harder obstacles where you have to be comfortable with essential grammar to understand somewhat harder and longer sentences. Depending on the novel a little additional knowledge of vocabulary and/or advanced grammar is recommended.

Medium – For this difficulty you have to be comfortable with essential grammar, understand all grammar and be comfortable with common vocabulary.

Motivational Hard – For this difficulty you have to be comfortable with all grammar and know common vocabulary. Depending on the the novel you might want to understand some common kanji.

Hard – For this difficulty you have to be comfortable with all grammar, you should be able to distinguish writing styles by now. You also have build-up a decent amount of vocabulary knowledge and you are probably able to recognize some kanji in it.
note: this would mean you can quickly read over really common sentences. You can read regular things (a lot of things with easy reading difficulty) mostly without texthooker or parser.

Hardcore – For this difficulty you have to be comfortable with all grammar, have a lot of vocabulary knowledge and are comfortable with kanji used in most vocabulary. At this reading difficulty, needing kanji knowledge is unavoidable, since you need it to be able to grasp the entire story. You’d only have to look up specific story topic related words.
note: this would mean you do not longer necessarily need the help of a texthooker or parser for some novels (although they will still make your life easier), congratulations you can now read daily used Japanese on your own! If you’re not learning kanji next to reading, this difficulty will only be reached after a LOT of experience with A LOT of different novels. There are not many VNs in this difficulty.

Some learning tips while progressing in your studies

› Reading and learning is a lot easier if you are enjoying the story, so if you’re looking for a first novel to read in Japanese, pick something that suits your tastes! It will keep you motivated. In general: no motivation = no progress. 

› While learning another language you tend to automatically read words or parts of the sentence and try to understand them before you continue with the rest. This works out if you’re dealing with shorter sentences, but you’ll notice it gets really hard for you when reading longer sentences. It’s a lot easier to learn to “read in sentences”

› Don’t try to translate to your own language/English while reading sentences. Now this is a hard thing to not do because you want to “convert” the sentence you do not understand into something you already understand. Try to understand Japanese sentences. In the beginning, translating Japanese to a literal English meaning isn’t too bad. You can learn things like “today, ate food”, but if you get longer sentences, you will get a hard time trying to understand sentences this way, creating silly things like “today, after the thing of doing towards the school, met up” which basically means you are generating machine translations in your head while reading. After learning the basics of grammar, try to punish yourself for even thinking in another language while reading Japanese, because you will really have a hard time later on if you keep procrastinating a good understanding of how it works. Don’t waste this chance to practise!

› It’s really important to be strict: you are learning! You are not trying to show off your great prototype Japanese reading skills. Pick practise materials appropriate for your learning stage.

General conclusion

Based on what I’ve learned so far on my journey, I can conclude that if you want to learn Japanese to initially read untranslated VNs: start learning kana and then immediately start with grammar. This way of learning is the most motivating and gives the best progress for this goal. Your knowledge will expand while exposing yourself to the language in the form of reading VNs.
After getting a good understanding on how the language works, you can gain some practical experience by either reading VNs or practise some Japanese-English sentences. There are a lot of Anki decks with sentences available. If you want to maintain a smooth learning process, I recommend practising your grammar knowledge on Japanese-English sentences first. Downside of this method: there is one step more to take before getting to your first VN in Japanese. Upsides of this method: you will understand more of what you’ll read in your first VN. Opposed to just reading Japanese text in a VN where will be no verification of your interpretation, you have the English translation of the practise sentences to check if your understanding is correct.
Start learning some vocabulary next to reading and, depending on your own interests and goals, learn some kanji. I also recommend not trying to learn those 2136 “jōyō kanji on their own, but try to pick them up while learning vocabulary.
>Note that if you would want to eventually learn (to be fluent in) the Japanese language, you can start learning wherever you want. It is highly based on preference what the best method is to learn a language, so that all depends on your own feelings and goals.

Personal reading experience
For all the VNs I’ve tried and/or finished I’ve written my thoughts on the reading difficulty following the difficulty ratings I described above.

Click for Reading Experience

Click to go to personal reading experience!

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13 thoughts on “Broaden your view: reading VNs in Japanese

  1. I enjoyed reading this post Nyanko, very informative and well structured! Hopefully more people will be reading this.

    I’ve also started learning Japanese because of the fact that there are so many awesome looking vn’s released in Japan but will most likely never be translated, let alone localized to the west. But even if a fan tranlation group did pick up a visual novel that I really want to read and starts translating it, it would take at least between a few months to over a year depending on the length of the visual novel and also how fast the group can translate, check the translations, editing the translated and quality control. Also there’s no guarantee that the group will actually finish and thus just drop the whole project altogether (whether they announce it or just disappear without a word).

    As for how I’m learning Japanese, I memorized the hiragana and katakana by writing them out and using the website http://www.realkana.com. For vocabulary, I grind Anki cards, using the vocab cards from this website: http://www.tanos.co.uk/jlpt/jlpt5/vocab/ but I modified the kanji-eng deck so that when it displays the answer, it will show what it means but also how you pronounce it in Japanese. E.g 今晩 = this evening こんばん. Whenever I play translated vn’s I can actually hear the words that I learned so I’m happy that I’m able to understand what the characters saying. I haven’t gotten to grinding kanji radicals yet but I will soon. For learning grammar, I also use Tae Kim’s guide.

    And finally, as for what I really want to read in the future here’s my list:
    The Baldr Sky series (mainly Dive1, Dive2 and DiveX (for dat gameplay))
    Hatsuyuki Sakura (want to read this because of the opening movie (yeah I know it sounds stupid…))
    Dies Irae (I won’t be able to read this till I’m actually fluent in reading Japanese)
    Majikoi series (I want to be able to read the untranslated routes)
    Hello Lady!
    Clover Day’s
    Angel Beats (once it comes out)

    I look forward to your future posts and I wish you luck on your progress with learning Japanese!

    • Thanks a lot, I’m happy you liked the post. I try to improve my Japanese reading skills, some weeks it goes slower and some I feel like I really learned a lot. Anki is a great tool, I don’t know what I’d do without it: it helps me to actually sit down for it and finish that daily practise. I also have a similar vocab practise as you described. Besides that I also used to make cards for certain words I found in VNs, weird words or kanji that were hard to recognize for me, but I’ve been neglecting making them lately… I just read now. I do plan on picking it up again though, especially when I start reading some more complex VNs, because it works really well.
      I plan to start grinding kanji when I already know a lot of vocabulary they’re part of. For me mastering kanji means that I can read a word and know how to “say” it, or write it in hiragana. My reasoning is that this will be a lot easier if I already know the possibilty of words it can become and this would only be possible if I know a lot of vocabulary. For example, when I see the word or rather the 2 kanji 「今日」at the beginning of a sentence, I read it as 「きょう」 and not 「いま…」 (今). My mind already does this automatically and I will understand that the first word reads “Today…” and not “Now../Just now…/Soon…”. This being a simple example, kanji are really tricky and I’m happy parsers and text hookers exist…, because I still have a long way to go!

      Ah, your list made me realise I totally forgot to add Hatsuyuki Sakura to this list. It’s also funny that you’re mentioning the opening because that’s what made me put it on my vndb wishlist too ^^; (after reading synopsis), it’s nice and really catchy. Added it to this list, unknown difficulty so far but I’ll update it when I find out.

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  4. This is really interesting. I noticed that you posted this a month or so after I started thing about learning Japanese for the sake of reading untranslated visual novels. At that time I discovered Aaeru’s guide instead, so I’ve been doing things her method. Basically Aaeru’s method is what you did but in between learning the kana and grammar you do Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji. I’m finally almost done with RTK, so I should be able to start learning grammar pretty soon. (I would have been able to get to grammar sooner if school hadn’t been so distracting/demanding). For a first VN in Japanese I’m thinking of doing either Kanon, or Snow. Kanon for similar reasons you did Saya no Uta (it’s a personal favorite and I already know the story). But I’m motivated to read Snow because I’m really really interested in it. I suppose I should do Kanon first to establish some vocabulary, and than tackle Snow afterwards.

    -Anyway, great post. I’ve been searching a while for a blog or a forum post of somebody explaining how they started their journey with untranslated VNs. This was just what I was looking for.

    • I’m glad you found help in this post! I like the reason why you picked Kanon as a first VN, and the most important thing you’ll gain out of reading it is just exposure to (spoken) language. You will notice even after learning all plain grammar rules it will still be hard to figure out sentences. In the beginning it’s a big puzzle you have to decipher. But don’t be discouraged by this because the more you’ll read, the more you’ll expose yourself to the language and the more natural it becomes to you.

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  9. Thank you, I am really motivated after reading this post. I also tried practicing my Japanese by reading VNs, and along the way picked up some grammar rules and kanji. I tried reading news, but VNs is undeniably much more fun. I also tried reading manga and doujinshi, and I must say, it is a different pleasure than VNs because you can see onomatopoeia written (^^).
    After this, I will try the tools you mentioned here. Lucky for me I found this post, hopefully it will make things easier for me. It’s still a long journey for me, and I am not even halfway yet.

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