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2011 July
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From the monthly archives: July 2011

So I guess if I’ve learned anything about myself from this tadoku contest, it’s not that I have a competitive streak, but that I have a competitive streak that lasts about one week! I read 18,140 words this week, so about the same amount of words this week as last week, putting me at 321,766. I did get in a couple of useful posts, though. I really hope that people find other resources near them and send them to me, because I think the list of locations could be really useful for new readers.

Since the tadoku contest isn’t actually over yet, I’ll keep this update short, but on August 1, I’ll write all about the fun I’ve had! I’m feeling rather more competitive in these last three days, so I’ll keep reading until then.


Help me expand this list! If you know of anywhere outside Japan where you can buy or borrow Japanese children’s books, or if you have more information about any of the places already on this list, e-mail me and let me know. Please include a link, if possible, and a general idea of things like how big the store is or how many books are available. (If it’s a library, see if there’s a way to search for all Japanese children’s books: for example, with the Tacoma library, if you search for “JAJ” (JApanese Juvenile) all the available books are returned.)



Costa Mesa

  • Kinokuniya: I’ve never been to this location but I presume it’s like the one in Seattle: that is, a spectacular source for new Japanese books, including children’s books and manga.

Los Angeles

San Francisco

  • San Francisco Public Library – Western Addition Branch: Only this branch specializes in Japanese books. It is west of SF Japan town. There are hundreds of Japanese kids books. They have all levels from kid’s picture books to juvenile books. They also have adult level books in a different section. (Thanks to Wayne for the description!)
  • Kinokuniya: It’s been many years since I’ve been to this location, but like the Seattle branch, it was, and presumably still is, a huge Japanese-language bookstore with a good selection of children’s books and manga.

San Jose


Ann Arbor


  • Mirai: medium-sized store with a good amount of new and some used books.

New York

New York City





  • The Nashville Public Library: has about 20 children’s books in Japanese, ranging from high level 1 to low level 3. These seem to all be at the main branch. Not much, but it is a place to start. (Thanks to e_dub_kendo for the description!)
  • McKay Used Books: I can’t speak for their other 2 locations, but the Nashville location is an enormous used book store, with an entire bookcase of Asian books. Generally these are about 70% Japanese. I usually only find 1 or 2 children’s books per visit, but there’s always plenty of manga. Prices are incredibly cheap. Generally I pay less than $1 per book. Sometimes you can find manga and light novels in really decent condition being sold for .25 cents. Definitely a resource worth checking out. (Thanks again to e_dub_kendo!)

Washington State

Pierce County

  • Pierce County Library: there are around 800 Japanese books of all levels spread among the various branches, though I can’t say how many of those are children’s books. The Lakewood branch and University Place branch seem to have the most.




I’ve written before how three months of reading without a dictionary was necessary for me to develop the ability to quickly figure out words from context; as it happens, it also took me about three months of reading with a dictionary to feel as if I was learning new vocabulary words. Initially I felt like I wasn’t learning vocabulary at all, just reinforcing what I knew, and I worried that over the long term I wouldn’t be able to progress. I even wrote about it in my first weekly update, and my friend Tsubasa, one of the people who introduced the concept of tadoku to me, said that she had had the same concern initially but didn’t anymore. Well, OK, I thought, Tsubasa is one of my tadoku role models, and if she says not to worry about vocabulary I will spend no more energy fretting about it.

By now, about four months after I started consistently reading with no dictionary, I do feel like I’m moving forward, and I perceive that what I’m doing is laying down a base of extremely basic words; that much I feel like I’m doing at a fairly fast rate, but there are so many words that the overall process looks slow, and I feel like I’m almost being forced to learn them in a sort of logical order. I think of extensive reading as being like a pyramid; at the base of the pyramid are the most basic of basic words – 言う (to say)、人 (person)、花 (flower)、いい (good) and so on, and the higher up you go, the more specialized, complex and rare the words get. I feel like I’m learning many words, but they’re words at a rather low level of that pyramid that fill in my general knowledge of the world — words I hardly knew I didn’t know, like “broom,” “ladder,” “chin,” “yawn,” “to carry something on one’s back,” “to cheer someone else up.” As long as the words are at a low enough level to be repeated, they come to me relatively quickly; more quickly in the emotional, context-rich setting of stories, I think, than they ever did on one side of a flashcard.

(In contrast, I think that intensive reading is like a skyscraper: reading a complicated text is like reaching the 100th floor, but if you want to read another text, with a whole new set of words that you don’t know, you have to go to another building and start climbing from maybe the 10th story or 20th story, depending on how much base knowledge you can call on.)

I love extensive reading and I’ve had success with it so far: it’s great for developing your reading skill, for reinforcing words you know, for learning word usage in context, collocations and usage patterns, for sharing in a culture; plus, it’s just plain fun. The question here, though, isn’t whether or not it’s a good way to learn to read, but whether or not it’s a good way of learning vocabulary. It might seem contrary, but because of my success with tadoku I’m not particularly invested in proving that it’s the very best way of learning vocabulary. I don’t know if it is or isn’t, and there may be more efficient ways, especially if you have a goal that’s more targeted than “being able to read anything.” I can really only talk about my own experience, and I’ve really only just started! My reason for writing this is to describe what the vocabulary learning process has looked like in my case and to take a look at how some other methods of vocabulary building might intersect with tadoku.

The Process of Learning Words Through Extensive Reading

I think of my total vocabulary knowledge as something like a net made of different sizes and types of materials. The words that I know in Japanese just as well as I know them in English and the words that I can recognize almost immediately almost all of the time are like strong ropes, securely knotted together, on which the rest of the net is constructed. Words I recognize almost all of the time are like slightly weaker, looser strands, then there’s a part of the net made out of loosely-woven, thin strands – words I usually recognize but sometimes forget, words I always recognize if they’re surrounded by other words they’re commonly associated with but sometimes forget when I see them on their own, words I’m sure about if they’re written in kanji but not so likely to recognize if they’re in hiragana. Then there are the words I am just starting to understand the meaning of but don’t really have a handle on yet, which are made of silk thread. Reading, then, is like taking the words in a book and passing them through this net. Every time a word is repeated and understood, it strengthens that strand, and by and by the vocabulary net expands and becomes stronger. Some words may fall through the net completely, but as the other words become more well known, it becomes easier to catch those unknown words, start understanding them and wait for them to appear again.

The trick, then, is matching this net to what I want to read. If a book has too many unknown words, they’re harder to isolate and understand from context, so it’s like stretching out the net too far and having more words just slip right on through the holes. I also find that there are may words that I understand when they’re in a context I understand, but if I don’t understand the general context the word escapes me too, so those words don’t get reinforced either. At this level, too, one completely unknown word is as hard as another completely unknown word. There may be differences in how common the words are, but it essentially doesn’t matter for that particular text; a word that, in an easier text, might have been the only thing you didn’t know and therefore much simpler to figure out, now just becomes one of several intimidating, time-consuming unknown words.

So I think the most basic part of vocabulary acquisition through tadoku is reading at the right level and being exposed to a limited number of repeated, basic words over a series of books: I think of this as forcing serendipity, in that the words that you need to know and can learn most easily are also, ideally, the same ones that you will see most often.

To break the process down, the first step is seeing a word and realizing that it is a discrete word; that is, that you can determine where it begins and ends. It sounds basic, but it isn’t necessarily easy in a long line of unbroken, unknown hiragana; this is part of why it’s important to be reading texts at a level where there aren’t so many unfamiliar words and particles that they just bleed into each other.

Next, you come to some degree of certainty about what the word means. You don’t have to link it to an English word, especially for vague words like adjectives; you just have to understand what it means in at least one context. I’ve written about some of my methods for doing this through grammatical knowledge, context and pictures; it’s also possible to connect a word to your prior knowledge, if you are reading something you’ve read in English before or a harder version of a story you’ve already read, or to understand the meaning through the kanji (or just the kanji readings without the kanji, if you are better at remembering those than I am). Sometimes the word is defined in the text in some fashion, and sometimes you can put together other words or parts of other words that you already know to understand a new one. All of these methods have their uses, but the more you read, the more likely it is that you’ll just see a word over and over and start to understand it without consciously trying to puzzle its meaning out from the grammar and context.

What you want, eventually, is to always be able to recognize the word immediately, no matter what the context is, without even having to think about its meaning or sound. That means that merely understanding what a word means isn’t equivalent to having learned it: it’s only the second step towards truly acquiring it. While learning vocabulary through tadoku alone, words are acquired by gradual, repeated exposure in a variety of contexts or by constant, marked repetition in a single context.

As an example of the first process, let’s take the word ほうき. It’s the sort of thing that shows up pretty infrequently, but it’s such a basic object that it appears in many books. If you see it in enough sentences, you should be able to figure out that it’s a discrete word, then a concrete noun, probably something people use in or around houses. You should eventually be able to connect it to your prior knowledge and think “Oh, I bet that means ‘broom.'” If there’s an illustration, that’s like a shortcut past all of those steps. Once you have a personal, working definition of a word, then you start the process of remembering that definition every time the word comes up. Sometimes it might fall into place immediately; sometimes it might take some supporting information (context, pictures, etc.) to nudge it into place; sometimes you might not remember it at all. Every time you remember it, it becomes a little bit more likely that you’ll remember it the next time too, and by and by, you can recognize it every time. (The only downside is that as you move up in difficulty, you’ll eventually need to connect ほうき to 箒, too, and for me and a lot of adult learners, it would have been easier if it had always been 箒 from the start. If you’re dealing with kids’ books, that’s just the way it is, but it’s a shame.)

Now, to illustrate constant, marked repetition, let’s say that there’s a book called The Golden Broom (黄金の箒), in which a half dozen explorers are racing to find the 黄金の箒, because the 黄金の箒 is the only thing that can clean the Ancient Temple and the first person to sweep its hallowed floor with the 黄金の箒 will be blessed beyond measure by the 箒神… Once you figure out what 箒 is, seeing it again and again in the same book is a shortcut to remembering it, its importance to the story (particularly its appearance in the title) makes it more likely you’ll create an emotional connection to the word, and especially if there are a couple pictures of the main character brandishing the 黄金の箒, you’re probably going to be all set with the word 箒. (Probably 黄金, too.) You could still lose it if you don’t see it again for a while, but since it’s a basic word that will show up in other books, too, you most likely won’t have that problem. Put another way, the barrage of brooms should make it that much easier to remember the word the next time you see it, which raises your chances of remembering it at subsequent meetings.

Not all words are alike: concrete nouns with pictures attached to them are the easiest to understand and remember, while I personally find that descriptive words are the hardest, particularly onomatopoeia (that is, 擬音語, giongo or sound words, and 擬態語, gitaigo or words that describe emotional states) because even if I isolate their approximate meaning through the grammatical and narrative context, it can still be unclear what exactly the word means, it may be a while until I see it again and it sounds so repetitive that it’s harder to remember. Between those two extremes, you have all sorts of words and all sorts of situations, and your reading material is not designed to make the process any easier on you. Furthermore, it’s impossible to say just how many exposures it takes to a word to learn it. There are words that I learned for good the first time I saw them; there are words that I’ve known for years but keep forgetting whenever I see them in different contexts; there are words that I kept on seeing and seeing without understanding and, then, one day they just fell into place. The more basic a word is, the more likely it’ll stay with me after just a few repetitions, but sometimes I remember fairly difficult words and forget easy ones for no apparent reason. An emotional connection with a word helps, as does seeing it in the title of a book. There are just too many variables involved for me to answer that question with a meaningful number.

In short, my experience with learning vocabulary through tadoku alone for these past four months has been that I’ve built up a pile of basic words slowly, but thoroughly, through my own understanding, prior experience and repeated exposure to basic texts. The good part is that once you understand what a basic word means, it’s repeated so often that you learn it fairly quickly, and it doesn’t take long for it to become part of this vocabulary net that supports your reading of higher-level texts. There are just so many basic words that it feels like it is taking me a while to learn all of them!

Vocabulary through structured instruction

Paul Nation, in The language learning benefits of extensive reading, wrote that “Vocabulary learning from extensive reading is very fragile. If the small amount of learning of a word is not soon reinforced by another meeting, then that learning will be lost.” In my experience, vocabulary acquired through extensive reading is no more or less fragile than vocabulary I’ve acquired from textbooks or flashcards, because I don’t consider a word actually learned just because I can figure out what it means once. However, I think that what Nation is describing is the time between understanding the word and mastering it. During this time, my acquaintance with the word is indeed fragile, because it often takes so many exposures to the same word to truly acquire it, and depending on how often the word is used those exposures may not be close enough together to support remembering it. The question becomes, then, does that fragility make extensive reading a worse way of learning words than structured instruction?

I certainly love tadoku, but I theoretically have no problem with structured instruction, which to me encompasses everything from formal grammar studies and flashcards to graded readers and asking questions, because all of these things can be thought of as shortcuts that take the place of portions of the experience that goes into forming a native speaker, and allows the learner to attain a specific goal or free up energy for more advanced things. For example, I sometimes come across “baby talk.” If I had been a Japanese baby at some point in my life, this wouldn’t pose a problem, but if I had to figure out what was going on as an adult learner it would probably be puzzling and slow me down. However, I read all about Japanese baby talk in English at some point (thank you Mangajin!), and if I see it in an authentic text, I don’t have to spend time thinking “Wait, でちゅ? Huh?” So in that case, a few pages of structured instruction was an effective shortcut to understanding this specific, potentially confusing point.

However, I think the problem with structured instruction is that there are so many totally useless shortcuts out there. Picking out key words and spending time and energy on learning them is one of the most basic components of traditional language instruction, but if you’re learning words that only really help you read or understand one thing, what good do they do you in every other situation? I remember one vocabulary list from my intermediate textbook that had basic words like 大陸 (continent), 驚く (to be surprised), 戻る (to return) and 天才 (genius) right alongside words like 難破 (shipwreck), 軍艦 (battleship), 捕鯨船 (whaling ship) and 漂流者 (castaway). In this case, you can think of this vocabulary list as a shortcut to reading a specific text. However, it’s only in an artificial environment that these words are at all equal: it’s the basic ones that will show up again and again, and it’s those that you need to learn so well that you recognize them without thinking, but this shortcut implicitly encourages students to neglect the easier words in favor of spending more of their time and energy learning the ones that are more difficult and are comparatively rare enough that they won’t be reinforced, meaning they’ll be forgotten once the test is over. It feels more like some sort of IQ test than a useful way of learning vocabulary! When I said earlier that it feels to me like tadoku forces you to learn in a logical order, I mean that you’ll have mastered words like “sailor,” “telescope,” “sails,” “deck,” “to row a boat” and “cannon” and repeatedly seen even difficult-looking kanji such as 難, 軍, or 捕 in various, more basic compounds or words long before you confront “whaling ship” or “castaway.” :

There are many ways to combine structured instruction with tadoku, but I think the most relevant methods as far as vocabulary acquisition goes would probably be looking up words after reading, using flashcards to review words and sentence patterns, and reading graded readers. To an extent, these things take away the experience of figuring out words for yourself (less so with graded readers, but you’re still reading in a vastly more controlled way than you do with authentic texts), but in return, you can free up the energy you would have used dealing with some of the basic words and put it towards identifying and remembering more advanced words.

When I was learning not to use a dictionary while reading, I made a deal with myself: I could look up anything I wanted after I finished a book. At first, I’d look up quite a few words, but gradually I stopped looking up things, because it took time and I decided that that time was just better used for more reading. Sometimes I still look up words, mostly after I’ve seen them a few times. In this case, it’s sometimes kind of like the meaning is bubbling up from the depths, but can’t quite make it to the surface, so I remember it to look up afterwards. Sometimes a word seems to be particularly important to a particular story and I just want to know it. (Most of the time, the dictionary just confirms my intuition about what the word meant, and then I just feel a little annoyed at myself for getting impatient.) So this is a shortcut past that second step of understanding what a word means; I still have to actually learn it through repetition, but having spent the extra time and attention necessary to fix it in my mind and look it up often means that it’s easier to remember afterwards.

I see flashcards as a way of consciously speeding up the process of identifying and learning to instantly recognize basic words. I think that one problem with flashcards is that they encourage learning words that are above your fluent reading level, which I consider to be a waste of time if you’re not going on to reinforce them through exposure to authentic material. Every so often — and I mean very infrequently here, maybe about five books out of a hundred — I’ll take a simple book I liked a whole lot that only had a few unknown words, look those words up and make them into flashcards, because if the book is basic enough I really should know the unknown words by now. Many times, just looking up the word and making a flashcard out of it is enough to fix an association between the word and the meaning, and I don’t really even have to review the flashcards. For words that seem fairly basic, but are just a little bit more complex than other basic words, sometimes I’ll actually review them. The downside is that it takes a long time to create the flashcards and even longer to review them, and if you’re using traditional word-to-definition flashcards, it takes them out of context; one reason that’s problematic is that, in my experience, words are so much easier to learn in context than on their own.

It seems a lot of Japanese learners advocate sidestepping this problem by putting whole sentences in flashcards; this isn’t a method I have personally used, although I understand the idea. It takes care of the out-of-context problem to an extent, but it just seems so dull to me… I can’t help but feel that it must take tremendous amounts of patience to review sentences over and over, out of context; if you have the patience to read sentences over and over again, you’ve got more patience than I do, so consider putting that energy towards finding at least a handful of books you like and reading them over and over again. You’d get the same repeated exposure to words, and it seems to me like it’d be more fun.

I see graded readers as a shortcut as surely as flashcards and textbooks are, and it’s the kind of shortcut I welcome and wish I had more of. The biggest problem with authentic materials — that is, books written for people who speak Japanese as their first language — is that they’re more complex than they look, because Japanese children have been immersed in Japanese for years before they start to read, and so for them, at the beginning, reading is largely connecting the information they already have to the written word; language learners have to acquire that information and connect it to the information on the page all at once. I remember the first Japanese children’s book I tried to read, near the beginning of my second year of formal instruction. It was an adaptation of Swan Lake (白鳥の湖), and by the system I use now, it was a low level 3 with about 900 words, about 40 of which were on the first page. The problem is, Genki I prepared me for ordering food and buying stamps, not for accompanying a prince and his retinue on a midnight hunting trip. That first page took me God knows how long to read, because I knew only about ten of those forty words, and I had to look up the other ones (paper dictionary, mind), write them down and then keep them in my head long enough to actually fit together the grammar and read the sentences. These days, if I open up a book and there’s more than three or four words on one page that I don’t know, I’ll probably put it aside — and there I was, working my little heart out and wondering why I was so pathetic that I couldn’t read a kid’s book. Eventually I learned those words: my method could charitably be described as “being stubborn as a mule and wasting a lot of time.” A couple hundred graded readers, designed for someone like me to be able to read and enjoy from the beginning while acquiring basic vocabulary in a more controlled way, would have been much better.

The problem, at least for those of us learning something besides English, is that those couple hundred graded readers don’t exist: for Japanese, it is more like a couple dozen, and those are excellent, but expensive, rare and, by design, don’t last you long. I’ve been thinking, though, that there’s no reason that we Japanese learners can’t create our own; the very materials that are most needed are basic ones, to cover the time between just starting to learn Japanese and being able to read things like the 心の絵本 stories. Expect to see some posts about this project once the tadoku contest is over…

In short, I see tadoku as the best way to learn to read and a good way to learn basic vocabulary, and, theoretically, I don’t see a problem with adding some structured vocabulary instruction that supports one’s progress with tadoku; I just think that many common shortcuts aren’t as useful as they might seem, because they take too much time relative to their utility, don’t make use of the benefits of context or encourage the learner to spend too much time on more advanced words and too little time on basic words. But, like I’ve said, I only have my own experience to go by, an what I hope is that that experience may be useful to other learners as they figure out what methods work best for them.


I’m up to 303,626 words, or 18,700 more than last week. I may be getting a little bored, which is not surprising considering that this has been my main project since March. I’m always fascinated by something, but that something changes every so often. I don’t always share my obsessions with the world, so if I ever forget to update this for a while, rest assured I am off doing something else that makes me perfectly happy. “Trust your obsessions,” Neil Gaiman wrote, and I do. But for now it is still tadoku, so I will try to read more next week!

I’ve decided that I’m going to try to write more in Japanese, which I say about once every two weeks and then totally neglect to follow up on. I’ve been writing this long post about tadoku and vocabulary acquisition, and it occurred to me that many of the words I feel like I know really well are words that I kind of sealed in my mind by needing them for a diary entry and remembering them without looking them up. I used to write all the time in Japanese, so it’s not like I lack things to say… I just have to get back into the habit. I started a blog at Ameba, so if I write in Japanese that’s where it’ll be.


Tonda Gossa!

… Yeah, sorry, I’ve been playing too much Mother 3, and the only reason I’m not playing it now is that I’m scared of Tanetane Island. Games count for the tadoku contest but not for my weekly word count, meaning that I’m only up to 284,926 words this Friday. That’s just 14,900 words more than last week, meaning I fell well short of my mark. (I also wrote up that blog post about 心の絵本, and I’ve been writing another post about extensive reading and vocabulary acquisition that hasn’t yet reached manifesto length but is threatening to. So I haven’t been slacking too much.) Well, that’s OK, I’m on hiatus next week, and you can probably guess what that means…

I do have one mildly interesting tadoku-related experience to relate. One of the books I read was an adaptation of 若草物語, or Little Women. It was level 4 by my system, 141 pages and about 6,000 words. And I decided, after I read it, that a book like that sort of falls into the Uncanny Valley of literature. Halfway through, I remembered that I had a short, level 3, 900-word picture book adaptation of 若草物語 that I had never read, and I pulled it out and read it halfway through my progress with the longer one. I enjoyed that shorter one so much more, because it didn’t pretend to be anything but a very basic introduction to what the book might be like in Japanese. The longer one, however, felt like it was trying to be a proper book, and because I know what that proper book actually feels like, it was so tedious. (All the more so because nothing interesting actually happens in Little Women — all of the fun stuff is in “Good Wives.”) So yeah, beware of adaptations, if you’re at the point where just being able to finish a book isn’t a huge motivator in and of itself anymore!

By the way, one of my notes is titled “Kanji that look like Space Invaders” and I don’t think I’m ever going to make a proper post out of it, so…

龠 龠 龠 龠 龠 龠 龠 龠 龠 龠 龠
鼎 鼎 鼎 鼎 鼎 鼎 鼎 鼎 鼎 鼎 鼎
鼎 鼎 鼎 鼎 鼎 鼎 鼎 鼎 鼎 鼎 鼎
黌 黌 黌 黌 黌 黌 黌 黌 黌 黌 黌
黌 黌 黌 黌 黌 黌 黌 黌 黌 黌 黌

  鬥      鬥      鬥      鬥

Other possible invaders: 黹, 鬻, 鬧… any more? And any suggestions for the UFO?


At the moment, Kokoro no Ehon is my favorite site for basic Japanese reading material. It’s a collection of original kids’ stories, most between 150 and 350 words, which makes them the equivalent of fairly basic picture books. Considering that you might pay between $5 – $20 for a real picture book with just as many words and pictures, this is a great find! There are other story collections online, but this one distinguishes itself by the pictures (which are helpful for learners, not just for decoration) and by the fact that these are all new stories, so you’re spared from yet another version of 桃太郎. If you’re new to extensive reading, even if you’re not new to studying Japanese, try some of these stories!

You can see the list of stories by clicking タイトル一覧 or directly through this link. The stories are color-coded by theme, and the themes are not all that important so I’ll leave figuring out what they are as an activity for the reader. There’s an English version of each story, but pretend it’s not there. (All of the titles are the official English ones, though.)

The stories are sorted by the number of estimated words, so to find them search for
the title. There are 24 stories listed here, for a total of 270 pages and 5,464 words.

The Postman
11 pages, 25 words (est.) Level 1

おやすみ やまねくん
Good Night, Little Yamane
12 pages, 40 words (est.) Level 1

まてまて マロン
Wait For Me, Maron
12 pages, 60 words (est.) Level 1

うっき うっき O モンキー
The Eeky Eeky Monkeys
11 pages, 100 words (est.) Level 1

12 pages, 100 words (est.) Level 1

I Wish
12 pages, 144 words (est.), Level 2

Wanta lives on the 6th street
11 pages, 165 words (est.) Level 2

Rokko the Sea Otter
11 pages, 165 words (est.) Level 2

Pea, Charcoal and Straw
11 pages, 170 words (est.), Level 2

Ku-chan the Racoon
12 pages, 180 words (est.) Level 2

Aya’s Dog
11 pages, 215 words (est.) Level 2

The Song of Starry Sand
11 pages, 220 words (est.) Level 2

Wanta and the Crow
11 pages, 225 words (est.) Level 2

あかどん あおどん きいどん
Akadon, Aodon and Kidon
11 pages, 235 words (est.) Level 2

Sue’s Summer Vacation
11 pages, 275 words (est.) Level 2

Buckwheat Dumplings
11 pages, 275 words (est.) Level 2

ねぼすけ クンちゃん
Sleepy Kun
11 pages, 275 words (est.) Level 2

やさしい トントン
The Gentle Tonton
11 pages, 275 words (est.) Level 2

Roupa’s Lunch
12 pages, 300 words (est.) Level 2

The Swallow and the Old Man
11 pages, 325 words (est.) Level 2

The Moon Was Watching
11 pages, 325 words (est.) Level 2

The Two Lazy Men
11 pages, 385 words (est.) Level 2

ぼく とびたくないんだ
I Don’t Want To Fly
11 pages, 385 words (est.) Level 2

Kappa in Mikazuki-ike
11 pages, 500 words (est.) Level 2


My personal goal with regards to the first week of the Read More Or Die tadoku contest was to double the average number of words I’ve read per week since I started writing the weekly updates – from 15,000 to 30,000. I’m now at 270,026 total words, meaning that I read 38,800 words this week — comfortably over my goal! (Not counting the time I’ve logged with Mother 3 — which has been plentiful. What a game.) So I’ll shoot for 40,000 words this week. I’m working more, but I should still be able to read more than I did this past week – after all, I did spend a considerable amount of time doing non-essential, non-reading activities.

Incidentally, this week put me over 25% of my overall goal, which was the next big milestone I was looking forward to after 100,00 words. As I’ve read, for the longest time, I’ve often automatically translated inside my head to English (not in a structured way, and not on purpose – just like as an unwanted, unconscious running commentary). According to my notes, I felt like I wasn’t doing this as often around week 9, and by now, provided I’m reading a book well within my fluent reading level, I feel like I only do it when I run into a sentence with a meaning that isn’t immediately apparent to me. I also think that – again, provided I’m reading at the right level – I’m starting to read faster than I could read out loud. I’ve always felt hampered not just by the little unwanted English translator in my head but also by the little Japanese narrator taking up space in there too, but I figured that enough exposure to words and patterns would get rid of them. The next milestone will be 500,000 words — and if I can meet my goals for this month, it won’t take me long to get there!


I learned the basic principles of extensive reading (tadoku) from some of my Japanese friends who had been following this method for several years, but it wasn’t until after I started this blog that I learned more about this particular method’s history and became acquainted with Kunihide Sakai, who developed and popularized this form of tadoku. He was kind enough to answer several questions that I had for him about extensive reading in Japan and other subjects. If anyone has any more questions or any opinions, please feel free to post a comment so we can keep the discussion going! You can also contact him directly through Twitter.

About the history of tadoku in Japan

What initially sparked your interest in extensive reading?

‘Sparked’ is a bit off the mark, really, because the realization was gradual rather than instantaneous. The biggest moment seems to have been around thirty years ago when an American colleague at a university where I taught English came to the common room one day with a black eye. She told me by way of explanation that ‘bump into the door’ is a euphemism suggesting domestic violence but that she really ran into the door. I gave up my research on English literature at that moment. I decided studying literature in a foreign language would be pointless unless I know the language well enough so I would know that ‘Bump into the door’ could suggest domestic violence. I decided also then I should read a lot before I’d be able to do anything worthwhile regarding a foreign language, let alone ‘to teach it’!

I could tell you more experiences like this one, but my answer is long already.

You said in the other interview that you had been trying to make extensive reading work for 25 years, but it wasn’t until you came up with your three golden rules that it really took off. How did you come up with those rules, and what had you been trying before?

Eleven years ago, I was in England for one year with my family. I watched my kids acquire English at an alarming rate from scratch. (I had not taught them English myself before my family arrived in England.) I thought maybe the same thing could happen if my university students mimicked the way kids acquire a foreign language. It did seem like a crazy idea at the time, but I had been fed up with failures of all kinds
of teaching methods that I was willing to give something drastic a try.

I started experimenting with eight 18-year old students at Denki-Tsushin University and, lo and behold, two of them started to read ‘grownup’ books after 30 weeks of what I since recognize as ‘tadoku’. I experimented a little more with a few more students and by and by the observation became the base of the three golden rules. They didn’t seem crazy at the time any more.

In Japan, is the word “tadoku” always associated with the kind of reading you advocate? (That is, fluent reading for fun without dictionaries, starting from a low level.) Or is the term used for other types of reading as well?

Not really. The term 多読 has been around for, say, a hundred years at least. Its revival is certainly largely due to what I started to advocate ten years ago, but there have spawned many interesting interpretations of what 多読 means. Many people now only know the term 多読 and don’t know the three principles I proposed. I think it’s quite natural that when something starts to spread widely it undergoes some kind of change or another.

Are there different schools of thought about extensive reading in Japan? That is, even if people agree on the basics of tadoku, are there disagreements on the details, or about the best way to teach or study English through tadoku? If so, what are some of the more notable differences?

Yes, differences abound. Even the basics of tadoku are forgotten in some cases. In one high school in Tokyo, for example, I hear students were given homework whereby they translate ten graded readers a year (like Oxford Bookworms Library books) into Japanese.

Also there are differences of opinions even where basics are supposed to be agreed on, like ‘Should we teach basic grammar first?’, ‘ Should flash cards be used?’, ‘Should we test comprehension?’.

What groups are there in Japan that work to promote tadoku? In what ways were you involved with them, and are you still involved with them now?

There are now a number of groups that have a website to promote tadoku in English. Most prominent would be the SSS group, the oldest and most widely referred to since its launch in autumn of 2001.

I was one of its founding members and tadoku owes the site a lot at its earliest stages. I’m not involved with the SSS group now because they have now reverted to traditional ways of learning English. They now advocate some degree of use of dictionary as well as teaching of grammar and use of tests. Other groups may have different principles but they are not very clear about where they stand. They seem to be simply providing information on books to read or online format to record tadoku progress.

Can you write a quick summary of each of the books about tadoku and language learning that you’ve written or been a major contributor to? How were they received?

「どうして英語が使えない? 学校英語につける薬」(ちくま学芸文庫, 1993)
Lays the foundation for tadoku, I was hoping, by explaining how flash cards are detrimental to language learning. I also ‘denounce’ in this book the course books certified by the Ministry of Education as presenting ‘unnatural’ English. Total number of copies printed would be around 30,000? I’m not really sure. Sorry.

「快読100万語! ペーパーバックへの道」(ちくま学芸文庫、2002)
This is the first book that presented the three golden rules together with reading suggestions to pave the way from picture books to books for adults. Total number of copies printed would be 40,000?

「教室で読む英語100万語」(Co-authored with Kanda Minami, 大修館書店、2005)

All about introducing tadoku to classroom, with 19 examples of classroom practice from kids English classrooms to high schools to university. Total number of sale, 4000?

「さよなら英文法 多読が育てる英語力」(ちくま学芸文庫、2008)
「どうして?」was in a way a criticism of English-Japanese dictionaries.「さよなら」takes a hard look on grammar as taught in schools according to the Ministry of Education guideline. Sad to say the worst seller of my books… less than 3000 copies sold? Intellectually exciting and truly eye-opening?

Liana, let me recommend you 「快読100万語」if you want to read my book. It’s the most readable, I hear. Don’t bother the latter half of the book if you are not into grammar, though. I hear it’s hard-going.

Are there any other books about tadoku that are particularly popular?

Yes there are a number of books that seem to be popular. Off the top of my head, 「今日から読みます英語100万語」is the second book to appear on the market after 「快読100万語」and it is still popular because there are a lot of brief reviews of books that are suitable for English tadoku. You can see how tadoku is liberating to the people on the street.

Do you think tadoku will ever become a major part of mainstream English education in Japan?

I doubt it. It is so counter-intuitive (that an adult can learn a foreign language in the same way as kids do), it seems unlikely that schools and universities will embrace it, especially in Japan where rote-memory and test scores mean so much.

Some people likened tadoku to Chinese medicine in that the effect is not so visibly clear except it builds your basic life functions in the long run, so to speak. (it seems to me the effect is much quicker than Chinese medicine.)

Is there still an extensive reading class at the University of Electro-Communications now that you’ve retired, or will it revert to a more traditional English class?

Er…m… (Sigh) I still teach two tadoku classes at UEC as part-timer. But no Japanese teachers are interested in tadoku so there will be no more tadoku class once I quit next March.

To be frank with you, Liana, Japanese teachers of English are the hardest to see the merits of tadoku. But let me grumble later if you want to know why. The topic is so depressing.

(Note: I asked why, and he posted this comment on another page on July 29, 2011, which I’m adding here.)

1) Why Japanese teachers of English are the hardest to convince about the merits of tadoku.

This is a big topic which would need a few thousand words if discussed in full, so let me just enumerate some of the problems teachers have with tadoku.

* Teachers of English are the hardest nuts to crack because they have semi-instinctive resistance to tadoku, which is against everything they have believed in all along: use of a dictionary, translation into Japanese, vocab building through sheer memorization, focus on grammar, evaluation by tests and exams, among other things.
* They think they are proficient in English thanks to the conventional methods described above, and they expect their students to follow their own steps. We all know the kind of disaster that results, don’t we?
* Most teachers blame students for not achieving the proficiency they think they themselves have reached. Very few think that it’s not the students but the conventional methods that are at fault.
* So, tadoku is only accepted by teachers who have tried everything in their arsenal and have seen no visible improvement in their students.

Are there any similar classes at other universities or schools that you’re aware of?

Yes, there a quite a few schools and universities where tadoku is available to students. I guess the number is somewhere between 50 and 100 in all of Japan. You see, there ARE some oddballs among teachers of English in Japan.

I find it very satisfying to work with such teachers and my diary since April is full of visits to schools to help with their tadoku classes.

What kinds of materials are available to Japanese speakers who are interested in doing tadoku in English?

A well-stocked school will have about 10,000 books and picture books for its tadoku classes. They are mostly material for native-speaking kids from K to 12 but some are graded readers that are written in controlled English with contents for high school to adult audience.

Is interest in tadoku continuing to grow, or do you feel like it’s waning somewhat?

At the moment, it is still growing, growing strong even, it seems. Signs are in a lot of places if you know where to look. (That is, the trend is not that obvious.)

I have a feeling that in five years’ time the tide will change either for the better or for worse: I suspect it will be basic soundness of tadoku principles against the staying power of traditional thinking.

I understand that the 日本多読研究会 (Japanese Graded Readers Research Group), the group that produced the only Japanese graded readers currently available, was organized (I think?) by your wife. How did she come to be interested in extensive reading for Japanese learners?

I asked my wife who is roasting 秋刀魚 now. She says first she was not happy with the traditional 読解 teaching method, second she was impressed by the success of tadoku in my English classes.

What else does that group do?

The group teaches Japanese language classes in Tokyo, holds seminars for teachers of Japanese as a foreign language, and has workshops for writing, rewriting and editing of Japanese Graded Readers.

About the tadoku community

You host discussions over Skype a few times a week: can you explain a little bit about what those chats are like and who can join in?

Those chats started about nine months ago and finally the number of sessions per week started to grow. They have been successful, I think, because they bring together tadoku lovers around Japan for friendly and relaxed chatting in English. I have found Japanese people being very unwilling to make mistakes so, to lower the threshold, I ask them to use Japanese whenever they get stuck in English. This might seem bad for learners with 根性 or determination and guts, it has proven successful so far, getting more and more shy people to talk in English.

I am hoping to invite more Japanese learners like yourself to one of these sessions so please be alert to notices in Liana’s blog and my blog at I invite anyone who is learning Japanese to contact me and join the おしゃべり会。

People who are into tadoku in Japan do offline meetups as well; what are those like?

They have been extremely successful and I believe they contributed to the success of tadoku in general in a big way. You see, it seems to me that three elements that meant a lot to the success so far are The three golden principles, the great amount of easy tadoku material and the tadoku community.

The number of tadoku lovers is so small and they are usually separated far from each other, they needed the Internet to make sure they are not alone. And off-line meetups may have enhanced the sense of this minority community.

What sort of experience do people learning Japanese have with tadoku?

I’ll have to ask my wife for this question but she has already gone to her computer, I’ll ask her later but I believe it’s roughly the same as English tadoku lovers. Tadoku let them enjoy Japanese rather than toil at it, thereby taking them very far along the way — farther than learners have had any inkling of sometimes.

Do you ever hear from people doing tadoku in languages besides English and Japanese?

Yes, I do, but they are all of them Japanese and had done tadoku in English before they started tadoku in other languages, like German, Chinese, French and Spanish for example. They all complain about the scarcity of easy tadoku material. In some languages, manga in the target language seem to be useful and easy to get hold of.

About tadoku and the learning process

Why do you consider it so important to stop using a dictionary?

I know this goes against the grain of serious and deermined learners of any foreign language. But I have observed literary thousands of English learners in Japan and the experience has shown me that at the end of the day the less you use your dictionary the quicker you get the gist of that language and get more efficient.

Do you think that learning a language primarily through tadoku is effective?

Err, yes. Please note that I base this affirmation on my observation so far. Actually by the same token, it seems to me now that the operative word here is ‘primarily’, if you want to enjoy the process of acquisition itself. If you want to go the hard way or if you enjoy tackling the dictionary or translating, stay clear of tadoku.

Have some learners particularly benefited from spending time on structured vocabulary and/or grammar studies along with extensive reading?

I doubt it. I’m not saying this categorically, though. I’m trying to find out the impact of conscious vocabulary building and/or grammar learning, but the jury is still out at the moment. My guess is that vocabulary building and grammar learning may have adverse effect on ‘(simulated) natural acquisition’ of a foreign language.

One of the most common criticisms I see of tadoku is that it’s good for reinforcing previously learned vocabulary, but it isn’t as efficient a way of learning vocabulary as other methods are. How do you address that concern?

They must be talking about ‘proper books’ rather than picture books at the first stages of tadoku. Pictures help enormously, you see. I have seen people with next to no knowledge of English getting quite proficient in recognizing and understanding hundreds if not thousands of new words.

I could go on writing about dozens of examples in this respect but it will take another three days at least writing non-stop. So more examples made available on request:).

Are there students who were turned off by what they felt to be childish or overly basic materials? Were they able to succeed with tadoku anyways, and if so, how?

Luckily my students at Denki-Tshushin U. are almost all of them fed up with the English course books with difficult topics and more difficult English. That helps a lot when I show them hundreds of picture books that they are asked to enjoy. They think my courses are veritable ‘Mickey courses’ as you say?, and before they know it, they get hooked by tadoku through Curious George books and Frog and Toad books for example.

It is my thinking that really serious authors of picture books tend to take their job quite seriously and do their best to entertain or to be informative to children and themselves. Forget childish pride in being a grown-up!, I say.

What are some other common criticisms of tadoku in Japan, and how do you address them?

There are so many, Liana, it beats me how I should start enumerating… And they also depress me. So some other time, all right?

One thing though. Have your heard of Bernal’s Ladder? If you haven’t, please read an article in my blog:

You will see, I hope, tadoku is slowly overcoming the countless criticisms and misunderstandings.

Do people studying on their own through tadoku usually start with graded readers, or do many people prefer to start with authentic materials?

I do not know the percentage but there are both. In the early years definitely more people started with controlled ‘graded readers’, but authentic materials like Oxford Reading Tree series are now easier to get hold of since public libraries have begun to stock them. I am pushing toward more libraries having authentic tadoku materials.

Was there any sense of competition among your students, or among people doing tadoku on their own?

Not that I am aware of in my classes at U.E.C. Though they tend to hide such urge to compete. My guess is that very few have a sense of competition.

In secondary schools, where class members are more ‘childish’, I have seen competition going, but it’s not all that bad as an initial driving force toward bulk reading. Problem starts when you keep on reading for competition too long. After all, tadoku is pleasure reading in a foreign language. Sense of competition gets in the way of sheer enjoyment, don’t you think?

What genres of graded readers did your students most like?

Let’s say, 70% fiction and 30% non-fiction? Both in picture books and proper print books. Fantasy is favourite of many students, detective stories are another popular genre, and very easy science books with photos are very favoured by many.

Did you ever help develop any English graded readers?

I was asked to be editor-in-chief of the easiest-level graded readers by Oxford University Press once, but the idea didn’t strike me as good and nothing came of it. I greatly regret my obtuseness.

About you

What do you prefer to be called in Japanese and why? (Any particular preference in English?)

Just call me Sakai or Sakai-san. I have just retired and I’m savouring the sense of freedom, you see.

What was your personal history with learning English?

Let me first make clear that I did NOT learn English through tadoku, which is my ‘invention’, if you like, at age fifty-five or so. I wish someone had come up with it before I started learning English.

I started learning English at age thirteen as any other Japanese in those days. (No English classes for kids in elementary school.) I was into grammar in a big way in high school. Then I began to collect dictionaries in undergraduate and graduate school days. The highest I paid for a dictionary was 100,000 Yen for the second edition of Webster’s International. Can you believe it? I sell it to anyone willing to pay good price for it.

Then I bumped into the episode of ‘domestic violence’ and washed my hands of dictionaries. I am still in love of grammar though. I’d like to make clear to myself what the structure is in any language, something like universal grammar? I don’t know but I enjoy making hypotheses about it.

Have you spent a lot of time studying abroad or living in English-speaking countries?

I don’t think it was ‘a lot of time’ but I lived in England on two occasions for one year each and another three months lecturing on English-to-Japanese translation.

Now that you’ve retired, where are you focusing your efforts in terms of promoting tadoku?

Three areas: Schools, the website, and one-on-one supporting of tadoku lovers in small and private classes.

How are you using Twitter these days?

I hadn’t expected much of twitter, as a matter of fact, but I had hopes for it as a way to write a lot in the target language, and it is working fine with some Japanese learners of English. I hope more people will realize the potentiality of twitter as opportunity for expressing themselves in their target language. The threshold is so low with twitter, and you can expect some kind of reaction from your 多読仲間.

Were there any English books that you particularly wanted to read when you were starting to learn English?

That was when I was thirteen years old, Liana. And I had no idea what English or American literature was like. No, I didn’t have an 憧れの本. I wish there had been a book like Harry Potter, though.

Do you have a favorite English book now?

Yes, many. Let us talk about them later.

Can you recommend any Japanese books that you particularly liked as a kid and/or ones that you think might be especially interesting to those of us doing extensive reading in Japanese?

Ah! That’s a brilliant idea, Liana. I’ll ask my friends in to come up with a Japanese book they enjoyed.

As for my own choice, I still think Eleanor Farjeon’s The Little Bookroom could be an excellent choice for tadoku lovers in Japanese, because it’s written in beautiful and readable Japanese and its stories are all of them fairly short. No kids’ stuff, I guarantee.

What do you think about the tadoku contest? (

Sorry. I didn’t have time to look at the site. So give me a rain check for now. (Does the term ‘contest’ play a big role there?)

Is there a story behind the penguin avatar?

Not really. One of my students at the UEC came to me one day about a year ago and showed me several animal versions of me. I liked the penguin version best and it turned out a lot of other people like it too. So it’s going to stay with me for a long time to come, I suppose.

Whee, it’s tadoku contest time! I usually do these updates on Saturday, but today is the first day of Read More Or Die, and I haven’t really started reading for that yet so it’s a good time to write down where I am right now.

Since I started keeping track of the books I’ve read, I’ve read 231,226 words (that is, 23% of my goal) and 158 books (156 on 読書メーター because I couldn’t add two of them). To break that down further, I’ve read 20 level 1 books, 45 level 2 books, 67 level 3 books, 18 level 4 books, 3 level 5 books, 0 level 6 books and 5 sets of graded readers. Since I started writing the weekly updates, I’ve read an average of 15,000 words per week, and my goal this week is to double that number. I’ve certainly got enough material and time to make it happen… The picture is of all the books I got from Nikkei Bunko today. That might be pushing the limits of their hospitality…

Good luck, tadokists, and happy reading!