After studying Japanese for quite a while and having read many books (maybe over 50-60 over a bunch of different genres), despite the fact I generally have tried to learn the readings of most words I come across, I always find myself discovering new words everyday whose pronunciation I don't know. Part of the time I can guess the reading since I know the common readings of the Kanji involved, but often not.

Nevertheless, even without understanding every reading and looking up every word, I still can understand things enough to follow the story.

My question is: Do most adult Japanese natives who read books really know each and every reading of every word they come across, or is there frequently times when they aren't sure? I'm sure some academic/intellectual type people who read very often might know nearly all of the readings, but I'm more curious about the average person who reads books off and on.

Part of the mystery to me is how one would learn all these readings. Most adult books don't have that much Furigana, and many of the more advanced words I am talking about wouldn't be heard frequently, if ever, in daily life. I just have a hard time believing adult readers would frequently look up Kanji readings, and instead would just aim to read such that they understand the overall flow of what is going on.

One example of one such books with a great many difficult words (for me) is this book, which is what I would call hardcore fantasy: https://www.amazon.co.jp/図書館の魔女-上-高田-大介/dp/4062182025

EDIT: As there was some discussion of the above-referenced book with difficult Japanese, I'll give a link to a review I wrote for it here.

  • I "think" part of what happens is: businessinsider.com/… Maybe memorize reading a paragraph. Then read it over, over, as fast as possible. Memorize the next paragraph. etc. Develop speed reading by memorization / repetition. Maybe end-up consuming sentences without tokening to kanjis and needing to pronounce each. Maybe not? Anyway, I memorize speeches and speak as fast as possible. This feels very useful for speaking at least. Jul 9, 2016 at 2:34
  • I think there is a wide variation in the reading levels of adult Japanese. I know some adults who couldn't read through one page of that fantasy book and others who could read the entire thing in one sitting. Perhaps if you narrowed it down to "most adults with a higher level education (college/university) degrees", then I would say yes.
    – Jesse Good
    Jul 9, 2016 at 4:06

3 Answers 3


As long as you are reading common novels, you can generally believe that average Japanese speakers can pronounce almost all kanji that don't come with with furigana (But as for 図書館の魔女, I don't know, since I had no way to review its contents. According to the book reviews, it seems that the book contains rather difficult words.)

But there are some "well-known reading mistakes" like 未曾有(×みぞゆう)、踏襲(×ふしゅう)、既出(×がいしゅつ)、and so on and on. This page has many examples.

It contains some words that are no longer common, so you don't have to memorize them all. But if you are not familiar with most of the words in this list, it means you still need some more work building up your vocabulary.

And it's hard to tell how often I, for example, come across uncertain words... For typical novels that are not "hardcore fantasy", I think it should be one word or two per book chapter, but I may be skipping difficult words almost unconsciously.

People make errors guessing the readings of place or person names all the time.

  • Thanks much! By the way, you can see the first part of 図書館の魔女 on BookLive.jp (free sample) in case you are interested.
    – Locksleyu
    Jul 9, 2016 at 1:45
  • I took a brief look. The author uses many words that almost fell out of modern use, like 背負子, 裁付袴, 雑役, 掘立柱, 杣道, 朝餉... But all of those come with furigana. With the aid of furigana, there was no word I could not "pronounce" in the first chapter, but I cannot explain what kind of hakama a 裁付袴 is, what kind of road a 杣道 is, etc. I understand that this novel is very difficult to those who are not familiar with the classic Japanese life.
    – naruto
    Jul 9, 2016 at 3:45
  • @Locksleyu Kindleで買ってみました. There are some words without furigana (鏡位, 馬繋ぎ, ...) of which I don't know the reading but can guess the meaning. And there are some words with furigana (蘖【ひこばえ】, 素馨【そけい】, ...) whose meanings I cannot even make a reasonable guess. Roughly twice per chapter or so. And of course there are hundreds of words with furigana of which I can guess the meaning and go on anyway. Roughly 20-30% of the words with furigana are those I can't read without furigana (besides ones that are obviously 当て字).
    – naruto
    Jul 9, 2016 at 9:30
  • Thanks for spending so much time on this (: Would you agree, this book is much more difficult in terms of vocabulary than average? "words" is one of the themes so I think that makes sense though. I hope you enjoy it, I have read about 60% and have really enjoyed it so far (:
    – Locksleyu
    Jul 9, 2016 at 16:47
  • 21世紀に書かれたものの中では間違いなく最も語彙が難しい小説のうちの1つだとは思います。「訝しむ」など硬い文学作品に共通の漢字もありますが、それよりも「フリガナか、文脈か、漢字の見た目かで何とか意味が想像できる」という単語だらけです。
    – naruto
    Jul 10, 2016 at 2:14

As far as it concerns Kanjis used in daily newspapers and magazines and modern literatures, I think most of Japanese don’t have much problem in reading and pronouncing them. But it applies only to 現代文 – modern Japanese language.

But when it comes to 文語文– written in classic writing styles i.e., the style used in Meiji period (1868 -1912) and earlier than Meiji era, the story is different.

Let me give you an ad hoc example:

There is the following sentence in page 230 in ”蹇蹇録(けんけんろく)- Memoire on the political situation around 日清戦争 (the Shino-Japan War -1894-95) and his diplopmatic achievement” at hand, which was written by 陸奥宗光 - Mutsu Munemitsu (1844 -1897) , Minister of Foreign Affairs at that time, and published in 1895 by Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


Rough translation:

In virtue of the influence of His Majesty, we made glorious victories both on the sea and ground ever since we declared the war (against China). Though we had interventions by the third party countries during this period, we managed to solve the problems skillfully thus far. However, depending on the future turn of this issue, it can bring the serious consequence on the future of our country. We need to be really considerate in dealing with the present situation we are now facing. It is needless to say that we should be shrewd and flexible to meet the difficulty lest we should lose the opportunity and timing.

I don’t know three words (擺脱、熟籌、隆替) in the above Japanese sentence, and there are three other words I don’t understand in the same page.

First of all, I'm curious to know what percent of Japanese contemporaries and how many native Japanese users of this site know how to read the word of the title of the book, "蹇蹇録," what it means, and can pronounce it correctly.

I suspect there won't be so many Japanese today who know that the word, “蹇蹇 (けんけん)” came from the line of 蹇卦 (Saigua), “蹇蹇匪躬 (sai-sai-fei-gong) – to commit loyalty to the king on the cost of his own life” appearing in Chinese classic, “易経 – the Book of Changes.”

As a pre-war generation, we learned 文語文 including both 漢文 and 古文 much harder than today’s younger generations. Still I found six unlearned words in a single page (Page 230) of a writing published only 121 years ago, with which few had difficulty in reading then.

I’m also reading now ”臨済碌 – Analects of Zen priest, Rinzai” at hand, published by 1989 from Iwanami Shoten. My comprehension level of 漢字 in 読み下し文 - Japanese way of reading Chinese text - without referring to annotations is 60 per cent or so of it at the most,

So my answer to the OP's question is Yes, most Japanese people can read most of 漢字 in modern literature. But I’m very much skeptical of whether today’s contemporaries have a good command of reading of writings published in Meiji, even Taisho era, much less before then.




I guess average Japanese readers don't know how to pronounce 繙き (especially if without the help from the context) but still, they know majority of pronunciation. These two facts can coexist, right?

FYI ひもとく itself is not so uncommon, but is usually spelt as 紐解く or in hiragana.

  • Thanks, but that is summary (marketing) text and I don't think its actually in the book. If you want to check out the sample on Booklive.jp you can gauge the difficult level.
    – Locksleyu
    Jul 9, 2016 at 16:49

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