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You Can Read Academic Japanese

Oftentimes reading academic articles in a foreign language can be a rather intimidating task, but this may come as a surprise: reading academic articles in Japanese is actually pretty easy.

Well, okay it does have two little prerequisites: a decent familiarity with Chinese characters and a basic understanding of Japanese grammar. This is nothing a little Remember the Kanji or some time over at The Japanese Pages Fast Track Grammar can’t fix!

Now let’s take a look at what makes reading academic Japanese so easy.

Kanji, Kanji, everywhere

One beautiful thing about Japanese academic works is the generous use of Chinese characters. If you’re comfortable with Japanese Kanji and even Chinese, you’ll feel right at home here. For example:

Look at all that lovely kanji!

You can already tell there’s a decent amount more Kanji than you’d see in a regular Japanese article, comic book, or blog post. This includes the notes and references section at the back, too:

The left bit is pure Chinese, though!

Section headers are all very clear and easy to understand. For example, the introduction uses a familiar phrase:

You’ll sometimes see 序 used instead.

はじめに, which is something you’ll probably remember from your very first Japanese class, is a very welcoming sight when starting out on an academic text. The conclusion section heading is just as easy:

You might also see 結 used for “conclusion”.

Some tips and tricks

Here’s a few tips and tricks that I hope will help:

1. Don’t worry about how things are pronounced (unless you need to). I find it easier to just be able to recognize the Kanji and its meaning. Great news for Chinese learners!

2. Practice reading backwards. Generally, Japanese grammar puts the verb at the end, so your best bet is to start from there and work back.

3. Know basic Japanese grammar such as positive and negative sentence structures, and conjunctions. Since a lot of the writing is in the “polite” form of Japanese, a lot of this is easily picked up within the first few chapters of most decent Japanese textbooks.

4. Focus on the Chinese characters for the basic meaning and content. This is a great way to get the general idea and primary focus on a section or paragraph.

Let’s look at an example of these three tricks at work, using the title for the paper shown above:


Start from the back, focus on basic grammar particles, and the Chinese characters:

に = in;

中心 = center/core;

を = indicates object;

『調査済教科書表』= primary source name;

漢文教科書 = Classical Chinese textbooks;

と = and ;

教科書調査 = textbook research ;

の = indicates possession ;

文部省 = Ministry of Education, Science and Culture (Japan; old name)

You just add all the bits up and like that you know this paper takes the『調査済教科書表』as the primary focus of the paper, and more generally it talks about textbook research and Classical Chinese textbooks of the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture.

(This also makes translating into Chinese super easy too: 文部省的教科書調查與漢文教科書——以『調查濟教科書表』為中心」)

Of course the method isn’t 100% foolproof and every writer has their own little quirks, but generally it should help you through a great majority of articles.

Although the biggest learning curve is the Kanji themselves, if you have a decent background in it and understand basic Japanese grammar, reading an academic text in Japanese should be a cinch!

Does this work? Do you have a better method? Let me know in the comments below!

Excerpts above from 木村淳:「文部省の教科書調査と漢文教科書──『調査済教科書表』を中心に」, which you can view online here. In case anyone is curious,『調査済教科書表』is also available online from the 近代デジタルライブラリー.

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