I was ecstatic when I started my Japanese studies. Every new lesson sounded like an exciting adventure. But the fun ended when I reached a place language learners dread: the quicksand stagnation of the intermediate level.
I particularly grew frustrated with reading in Japanese, as reading requires going beyond the day-to-day vocabulary, as well as a solid command of kanji. The thing is, most of the (good) resources out there for Japanese learners — especially when it comes to readers — are tailored either for native speakers or beginners.
Pick a book too difficult and you end up having to look up words on your phone, trying to decipher a paragraph, and whoops, there goes the thread of the story. And you can only last so long reading children’s books before you start craving stories that don’t involve poop.
And then I heard about Satori Reader.
Satori Reader is an online learning tool providing customizable written content for Japanese learners to level-up their reading skills, as well as accompanying audio content that engages your listening and speaking abilities. Through a growing catalog of thoughtfully annotated, curated content that covers a variety of topics, Satori Reader is becoming a real game changer in the Japanese study sphere.
I was offered the opportunity to try out Satori Reader for three whole months (woohoo!) After a few days of using it, I think I got a pretty good idea of what it was all about.
A peek at Satori Reader’s features
Satori Reader was primarily designed to be used on a computer widescreen, but they also developed an app, available on both Android and iOS. If you like to read during your commute, the app is definitely a good option and you don’t have to worry about your data usage as you’re given the choice to download content for use offline.
1: Customizable display of kanji and furigana
To improve your reading skills, you need to read (duh!). But if you’re like me — stuck in stagnation — you get easily swamped by all the kanji you don’t yet know, making it difficult to do the very thing you need to do in order to improve.
Satori Reader solves this issue by adjusting the text display to your knowledge level. Detailed options mean that you can set your preferences for kanji, furigana, and spaces between the words. One example is setting it to show the original text with furigana over only the words that contain kanji you don’t know. The cool part is that you can do this from your account settings but also instantly while reading. Satori Reader = 1. Regular book = 0.
When it comes to kanji, you are given several options to indicate your knowledge: grade level, frequency or books. But you can also import the lists of kanji you know from third-party resources such as Kanshudo and Wanikani.
While setting up your preferences is definitely awesome, the minor setback is that I’m utterly lost when it comes to precisely knowing all the kanji I know. Yeah… I haven’t been very thorough in tracking my progress. But even if the text display didn’t always exactly match my knowledge or lack thereof, I was able to get a real feel for my level and tweak things as I went along. In fact, it was a nice boost when I realized I actually knew more than I thought!
2: Fantastic in-depth definitions and explanations
Ever read something in Japanese that you didn’t understand, then looked up in the dictionary only to become more confused? I know I have.
Reading in a foreign language requires more than looking up definitions. You need to have some understanding of the cultural background and to see the world as native speakers do. It took me only a few chapters to tell that the editors of Satori Reader totally get this struggle and work hard to provide in-depth additional explanations along with definitions and translations.
Fear not if the translations look like broken English — that’s on purpose!
Literal-leaning translations avoid glossing over the Japanese sentence structure and help you to make sure you’ve understood the sentence correctly.
— Brian Rak, Satori Reader Founder
3: Audio content enables shadowing to help your listening skills
Satori Reader is about more than reading; awesome audio content helps you with your listening and speaking abilities too, enabling you to engage with the stories in a different way. Professional voice actors actually perform the parts in each of the stories so you can understand how the sentences would sound in real life.
Before each sentence, you can click on the play button to hear the text out loud. You’re also given the choice to download the audio as an MP3 if you prefer. Shadowing (= repeating like a parrot) will increase your chances of retaining the vocabulary. Trust me, that’s science!
Recordings are at the slower end of the spectrum enabling you to hear the intonation and clear pronunciation of the text — great to help with memorization. And help I need because even if I feel forever 25, my brain has clearly let me know it isn’t.
Another nice touch is that when you review words in your study list (see feature five below) you can play the recording of the sentence in the series where you encountered that word.
4: Editors answer your questions
If even with all the explanations you still find something hard to understand, you can leave a comment under the chapter you’ve just read. The editors (a.k.a real humans who actually know what they are talking about) will answer you.
The creators behind Satori Reader are eager to help you get your Japanese to the next level and to get your feedback as well, so you also have the opportunity to send in a question or to start discussions from your account at any time.
5: You can keep track of your study progress
If you’re like me, busy making them dollar dollar bills, the key to sticking to a new habit requires a way to track consistency. Satori Reader has just the right tool for you to check your time spent on the platform with their usage heatmap. It’s really an ingenious tool to see if you can spend a little bit more time reading in Japanese here and there.
Another good way to track your progress is to review all those fancy new words you’ve just read. The editors have added the option to save new words and expressions into a study list for you to review later. Similar to most flashcard apps, you will be encouraged to review new vocabulary on a regular basis.
However, what makes Satori Reader stand out is that when you add a word to your list, it includes the full sentence where you first saw it as well as the audio playback of the sentence. This is a real selling point as it means that you can better understand and remember vocabulary.
Since I’ve never been a huge fan of learning with flashcards, I didn’t make use of the list feature as much. However, Satori Reader’s creators thought about this eventuality and you can actually export the data to use with other tools that you like — quite a neat way for me to keep vocabulary lists to check later on.
How to use Satori Reader
After this quick overview of the best features Satori Reader has to offer, let’s check out how it works.
First, sign up and embark on their welcoming tour
Like most technologically challenged people, I have little patience with registration processes. Luckily, setting up my account was quick and easy. You don’t need to subscribe right away so you’ll be able to browse some free chapters to see what you’re getting yourself in for.
After confirming my account, I was led to my dashboard page which gives a quick overview of your account and what you’ve recently read. As a new user, I was encouraged to hop on the welcoming tour. Although the website is quite easy to use at first glance, I think doing the tour does teach you how to get the best out of your reading experience.
Then, check out the catalog
Heading over to the “Articles” page of Satori Reader, you’ll get an overview of all the series available. There’s quite a lot of variety: love stories, thrillers, historical and cultural topics, news as well as daily life in Japan-oriented conversations. Illustrations aren’t amazingly fantastic, but we’re not on Satori Reader for its pictures.
The dialogs are series teaching you some very practical, down-to-earth Japanese. The Hospital series, for example, is very straightforward with titles such as “At the Pharmacy,” “Seasonal Allergies” or “Possible Pregnancy.” You’re guaranteed to learn some vocabulary and conversation patterns most textbooks don’t teach.
Satori Reader releases three new episodes every week and now banks almost 500 in total. Given that it seems to be getting more and more popular too, it seems only a matter of time for more series to be uploaded on the site.
Most of our users are at a level where three episodes a week — including time to review new vocabulary and grammar — is the ideal pace.
— Brian Rak
Plunge into a series, one episode at a time
I could have gone for a love story, so Sakura and Suzuki’s Long Distance Relationship was appealing, but years of Japanese drama addiction kind of already taught me an extensive vocabulary. I do love mystery and one title, Secret, looked perfect for the job.
The number on the top right corner indicates how many episodes a series has. Secret is, at 43 and growing, already quite lengthy, but still under the 60+ episodes for Akiko’s American Foreign Exchange.
Secret sounded promising with its intriguing excerpt: “How well can you really know someone?” (erm I don’t know, but okay, I’ll bite!) Landing on the series page, I could see the episodes listed in chronological order. I could bookmark the series and also keep it as one of my favorites. Along with each chapter’s illustration, you can also read a quick summary as well as an indication of its difficulty level.
So the difficulty level is actually evaluated by the users themselves. That’s certainly an excellent indicator for Satori Reader’s editors to better calibrate future content. But I’m not exactly sure that the evaluation was relevant for me to select a particular series.
My initial thought was that I wouldn’t be able to read it as I started my very first episode. As I mentioned previously, I’m not really sure of my kanji level, so I had to go back and forth with setting up my preferences. I had to check the vocabulary more than once and fought back the urge to close the tab.
There’s no shame in getting a little help so I switched my preference to show all the furigana. Being able to play with the display is very cool.
The audio was super helpful with memorizing new vocabulary and just generally getting my ear trained to the right intonation for the words and sentences. The performance of the voice actor added a new dimension to the story, helping me, I think, to understand it in a deeper way.
My main goal though was to see if I could speed up my reading and I quickly reached the last episode of Secret. I wouldn’t say I’m Game Of Thrones-level impatient for the next release, but the storyline is building up well and my reading flow has already improved.
I didn’t use the flashcards review a whole lot but I did learn new words such as 夢遊病 meaning “sleepwalking disorder” and 事情聴取 meaning “police hearing or investigation.” Here’s to impressing my Japanese friends!
So is Satori Reader worth a shot?
Yes, yes and yes! This is the first time I encountered a learning tool that offers reading content in Japanese that’s both interesting (no poop stories, yay!) and valuable for developing my language skills.
There are tons of language apps out there, most of them being mere boxes into which developers just pour data, a dozen languages at a time with no guidance. Satori Reader is different. The people behind the website — developers, writers, editors, voice actors — live and breathe Japanese with one goal in mind: to help users unlock understanding in a new way. And they love what they’re building with your help.
One user wrote to tell us that he had learned more from Satori Reader than from 27 months of in-person language school in Tokyo. We constantly receive similar feedback from users in Japan and all over the world. —Rika Nakajima, Satori Reader Editor
Whether you just take a couple of minutes per day to read one episode or two, or you go full steam ahead with all the features the website and apps offer you, you’ll definitely improve your reading skills and ultimately your understanding of Japanese.
Signing up for Satori Reader
You can head to Satori Reader and sign up first for a free account (see the link below). You will have access to quite a lot of content, the first two episodes of each series and the entire Closeup: Obon Society series. Satori Reader is clearly built with love and care, so you can also support their writers, editors and voice actors by subscribing to Satori Reader Pro for $89 per year (or a $9 monthly subscription). You’ll gain full access to more than 450 episodes and downloadable audio. Don’t forget that you can also download the app for Android or Apple.
As a piece of final advice to all learners out there, I’m not gonna lie, the key to your progress isn’t only the tool per se, but to show up every day. For me, Satori Reader is unique in that it got me hooked to read more Japanese and provided me with the perfect platform to do it.