The Wait That Kills: Before You Pwn Books, You Must First Own Books

We are all born illiterate.

If you were to wait until you could read to start thumbing through Japanese books, you’d die waiting. If you were to wait until you could  read to start owning Japanese books, you’d die waiting.

False: can’t read Japanese ∴ own no Japanese books.
True: own no Japanese books ∴ can’t read Japanese.

See these non-Chinese Hong Kongers? They’re waiting until the Hong Kong SAR government teaches them to read 1, to buy Chinese books.

They’re waiting to death.

The Japanese government is one of the more hands-on bureaucracies in the world, and I wouldn’t trust them to teach garden variety Yamato kids, let alone ethnic minorities. The HKSAR administration is one of the most laissez-faire in the world; they’re not going to come save the day on this one; that’s not how they work; that’s not what they do 2.

Literacy cannot precede reading material: (access to) reading material must precede literacy. Before you pwn books, you must first own books.

Lack of Japanese knowledge does not cause lack of Japanese books. Lack of Japanese books causes lack of Japanese knowledge. Inability to read Japanese does not cause lack of Japanese books. Lack of Japanese books causes inability to read Japanese. Illiteracy doesn’t cause lack of books. Lack of books causes illiteracy 3.

Before you have the books, not only are you not on the playing field, you don’t even know what the sport looks like. How are you supposed to win at a game you’ve never seen? 4

When you start actually owning Japanese books (and by “own”, what I really mean is, “have instant, 24-hour access to” — that means the books are in the restroom, in the living room, in the bedroom, in the backpack, in the briefcase, by the desk), you give yourself a fighting chance at literacy.

Before you pwn, you must first own. Let yourself win. Get the books before you can read them if you ever want to grow into being able to read them. 5

“But I can’t read them yet!”

Yeah…that’s the point. That’s why you have to have them.

If you want Japanese words to be in your head, first you have to let them into your house…and then into your hands…and then into your eyes…and then, finally, they make it inside the head on their own. 6

What do you want to be illiterate for anyway? Why would you allow that? Why settle? That game sucks, brah. Jut ask those nice folks in Hong Kong. Not cool.

Image: jscreationzs /


  1. Personally, I think the word “discrimination” is a bit inappropriate to describe some of the things you see in vids like these. In fact, the irony of all this is that it actually came out of friendly, well-meaning attempts at pluralism and multiculturalism (=the Mother Tongue Education movement).

    People aren’t being refused work because they’re not Chinese: they’re being refused work because they’re illiterate — in both Chinese and English, one might add. Chinese people who couldn’t read wouldn’t get that work either. Why the illiteracy? Because Chinese books are not part of their home life.

    Anyway, the good news is, not everyone is thus affected by any means. As one commenter offers:

    My father had a Pakistani boss once, he was born and bred in Hong Kong…his parents took the decision to send him to mainstream Hong Kong school, which was extremely unusual in late 50s early 60s. He had always said that being able to read and write Chinese was what got him so far. I agree. [Emphasis added]

    Desis have been socio-economically successful wherever they have ventured in the world, and Hong Kong is no exception.

  2. From what I’ve seen, Chinese parents in HK start busting out the flashcards (and even newspapers) before their kids are even in kindergarten.
  3. Speaking of which, TV can actually count as reading in places like Japan and Taiwan, where it’s so text- and subtitle-heavy.
  4. Before you go off and figuratively become a bookish deaf mute ( ;) ), remember that all of this goes for listening as well. If you wait until you understand to start listening…it’s game over before you even start. If you ever want to be able to understand what you hear, you need to hear before you understand.
  5. You like that? That was an Ironically Awkward And Belabored SentenceTM
  6. This never quite seems to work the other way around :) — not in the beginning, at least.

  36 comments for “The Wait That Kills: Before You Pwn Books, You Must First Own Books

  1. Anonymous
    December 4, 2010 at 01:50

    My morning so far:
    1. wake up
    2. read AJATT
    3. buy first foreign book

    Thanks Khatz!

  2. December 4, 2010 at 04:46

    Thanks for this entry! It encourages me to keep trying to read all those Japanese books I have. I wrote about your entry on my blog to share about how important having Japanese books is to my classmates.

    December 4, 2010 at 05:43

    so sprach zarathustra
    o mighty Khatz! You speak the thruth!

  4. Kyo
    December 4, 2010 at 06:11

    I definitely agree. I like browsing through my mangas/books from time to time to see how many kanji I know the keyword too. Still pretty early in here, but making good progress.

    You have to look at it like this: If you only know 200 Kanji, that’s already 1 out of 10 (going solely by heisig anyways – of course there’s more in reality)

  5. kk
    December 4, 2010 at 06:12

    Two anecdotes, only tangentally related to this post…

    My last trip to Japan, I went into a Japanese bookstore, as I often do when I am in Japan. I still cannot get over this feeling of being… an imposter? Not sure if that’s the word for it. It feels weird being in a bookstore where I can read every… 100th kanji, but am surrounded by folks reading books. Like I’m going to be outted as an illiterate. Anyone else have this feeling? Of course, it doesn’t keep me from barging right ahead and scarfing up books.

    Second is, what is up with Japanese books being little larger than the size of a 3×5 card? My eyesight isn’t poor, but geez. It’s bad enough trying to distinguish various kanji from one another without having them be minute little specs on the page!

    • David
      December 4, 2010 at 09:01

      That’s only for the 文庫版 usually. Buy hardcover if you want it bigger. I personally love the small size, convenient for carrying around a large number of books :)

    • Ken
      December 5, 2010 at 08:16

      I’m always the only non-Japanese person when I go to Kinokuniya, but nobody has ever asked me if I can read the books I buy.

      The crazy part comes 2 months later, when you’ve finished Heisig volume 1. You’ll look back over your books and think “hey, I know what he’s saying! and her! and him! … who replaced all my books with stuff I can understand?”

  6. Anime Fan No. 100,000
    December 4, 2010 at 19:38

    Another good idea for those who want to read Japanese but wants to save money can read free online novels in Japanese. Just type “無料小説”(free novel) and you can read for free. Plus, with Rikaichan installed, understanding unknown words is easy. If don’t have it installed, just copy-paste onto Denshi Jisho to search the meaning. Literacy in Japanese is easy now in the age of the Internet.

  7. Dan
    December 4, 2010 at 20:03

    Thanks for the article!

    When I started learning Japanese I felt like I had to master everything before I had earned the right to march into Maruzen and just pick up a book. It took a while to unlearn that sort of negative thinking so it took me about a year of self study before I bought my first novel.

    After several years of Japanese, I just started dominating French and the first thing I did was buy a pile of FR versions of Calvin and Hobbes, Fight Club, Otomo Katsuhiro manga, etc. I started out from the assumption that I was already French and so having loads of books around was just a natural extension of that. Combined with all day audio, SRS and monolingual dictionaries, I’m just going to keep reading books/comics/blogs as if I was a adult native speaker until reality catches up with my unstoppable self belief : ) It has also created this huge sense that the language is *mine*, even though I am still at the early stages and only understand a little.

    Get involved,

  8. Jacinda
    December 7, 2010 at 06:05

    My favourite part of reading books I don’t fully understand is going back some months later and having the ‘ohhhh’ moment when something clicks that didnt click last time.

  9. December 7, 2010 at 11:48

    I think the pwn own thing is cheesy. But, as always, he speaks the truth!

    Makes me feel good about the gobs of un-read old Japanese stories I have on my Kindle that are still a bit out of my comfort level.

    I’ll read them! Bit. By. Bit.

    And since my memory sucks I can read them OVER AND OVER again and it’s like new every time!

    Good stuff.

  10. kirsten
    December 7, 2010 at 11:53

    coincidentally, I just went out and purchased ハリー•ポッターとアズカバンの囚人 (harry potter and the prisoner of azkaban) a couple of days ago and completely agree.I LOVE Japanese books and if you have access to cheap second hand book stores, you have no excuse not to stockpile them :D

  11. terra
    December 7, 2010 at 16:11

    I can tell you from experience Khatz that it’s never too early to begin reading ‘adult’ material. My parents were never too interested in what I did at school but my father was absolutely obsessed with making sure that I could read (perhaps because he had a poor education), and long before I entered kindergarten I’d learned English from him reading newspapers to me and making me repeat them out loud.

  12. December 7, 2010 at 21:45

    I have a bookshelf full of Japanese books, manga, and *gasp* textbooks (sorry), assorted newspaper clippings, flyers, ads, 作文, and all sorts of other crap in Japanese. I now need to buy a new bookshelf.

    So yes, I agree. I think.

  13. Storm-wolf
    December 7, 2010 at 22:45

    Yes, i really feel it myself. It dawned on me how stupid it was to try to learn how to read, without actually reading. Then recently, in a bookshop, i saw a second hand cat’s eye manga (in japanese). I browsed through, and saw that there was not too many kanji (which is good cause i don’t know many yet). I bought it, and started reading it. I think i understand 1/4 to 1/3 of what i read, but it feels so good! I am so happy when i totally understand what’s going on, or when i get a joke.
    And the kanji, there are few, but it is perfect for my level. More kanjis would be very discouraging, because i don’t know many, and i would have a really hard time reading the manga. So it is perfect for now, but i think that soon, i (hopefully) will need a more complicated manga.

    And yes since i started, i learnt quite a few kanji, easily, in happiness, by myself, without cramming through a kanji list or something.
    And that feels good.

  14. starsandcars
    December 9, 2010 at 14:44

    i agree any book is better than none in your second language, but does anyone have any book recs? I’ve been relying on a nice little Japanese bookstore in my city but I literally choose books by their cover. Pretty cover does not always equal interesting. And even though I do plan on buying harry potter the second I step foot in Japan, I’d love some recommendations for Japanese books, not just Japanese reprints of books I’ve already read in English!

  15. Sally
    December 15, 2010 at 15:32

    I fully agree with this article!
    I have attended japanese lesson for one semester back in university but after that I basically abandoned the language. Then after a few years my passion came back, mainly due to my desperation to understand the japanese games. So I started self-learning and now I am still doing it. I am not a very diligent student to be honest and I search for study materials online and study on my own pace with my own methods. And I realise I need to read more to progress. MORE! So I started searching free online novels and although it was a pain in the ass in the beginning because of the kanji, I got over it. The best thing about reading when you are not even that good is you can see progress. Obvious progress. Some day you realize, 'hey I can actually understand what he's talking about!' And the good thing about reading online, you can copy and paste the kanji and search the meaning very fast. Hehe. Next step I am looking at buying hardcopy books so I can have reading materials readily available anytime I feel like reading it.

    • December 15, 2010 at 18:23

      Hey Sally, you wouldn’t mind sharing some of those free online novel sites, would yah? :P

      • Sally
        December 16, 2010 at 11:22

        Hi Tyler,

        You can try these sites:

        The first link is mainly romance novel for ladies. :P The others have genres like mystery, sci-fic, and fantasy. What I like is that those are light novels and it’s fun to read, even to beginners. And sometimes you can even learn the latest word trends. :P
        Hope you find something you like. :P

        • December 16, 2010 at 22:15

          Thank you so much! :D

  16. February 25, 2011 at 16:09

    I say skip the books [for now at least]. I for one have little funds to be constantly buying dead-tree books… So I invested in the Kindle. Single best purchase I’ve ever made. I now have books on my person [and it can be in the thousands, at that] with one slim piece of plastic. It weighs less than a pound, and the battery lasts for a month off charge! Best of all, you can get your “books” for free, Instapapering japanese articles and websites and sending it to your self! Man, Kindle is on fire!

  17. December 16, 2011 at 23:57

    I currently own two Japanese books I bought in Italy..Can’t exactly read it yet, but I’m certainly going to try someday XD

  18. blackbrich
    April 13, 2012 at 04:54

    Definitely rings true for me, I have a kindle but reading manga(my main material) on it is not fun by any means. Second I bought new books, burst through 100 pages in an hour.

  19. Soha Tanwir Khan
    June 5, 2012 at 05:23

    Wait, wait, wait! What sort of Japanese books should I start with? Where can I find Japanese books in the first place? 

    • June 6, 2012 at 00:12

      I’ve heard some people recommend starting off with picture books, others will recommend manga, but what I would say is get anything that interests you. If you like Harry Potter, maybe try looking for a Japanese version of it. At least in my opinion, it doesn’t matter what you decide to read, as long as it’s something you actually *want* to read.
      As for finding books, the easy answer is, but there are other websites, as well as probably some places local to you that may sell used books.
      I hope this helps!

      • Soha Tanwir Khan
        June 7, 2012 at 02:57

        Oh, yeah. That’s actually a very good idea! Thank you so much for your help! :) Very, very good idea!

  20. Hetty
    January 14, 2013 at 18:01

    I “read” a lot of manga when I was younger. (I still read it actually.) I saw several kanji multiple times, so that even though I couldn’t understand them, at least I recognized them. Strange as it may sound, even though I don’t understand lots of kanji or even lots of spoken words, the fact that I recognize them is a very comfortable feeling. It’s like feeling slightly less lost.

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