Having recently plucked up the courage (or more accurately, resolved to put forth whatever effort was required) to read whatever Japanese text I liked whether or not it had furigana, I have found firstly that it isn’t all that hard and secondly that it has some real benefits. I probably know 300 or 400 kanji readings, at a guess, just for perspective – as often as not incomplete, as well; just kun-reading or maybe just one on-reading.
This started when I began my second reading SRS deck, which is four-panel manga. Azumanga Daioh was the choice, for a few reasons; I loved the anime, I already had the books, it was by the same author as Yotsuba& which I also enjoyed immensely, and it didn’t seem very difficult. (It actually has some unexpectedly uncommon kanji, I’ve found, but still it isn’t hard. Grammar is as simple as you’d expect in a four-panel.) Azumanga Daioh does not have furigana, and that was another reason I picked it for this deck. If my intention was to reread the text as often as needed in order to remember all the words whether they have kanji or not, furigana would simply be a distraction, and a possibly deceptive one at that.
Then I also began the second volume, just reading through it, not SRSing it, in a feeble attempt to get my pagecount for this month’s ReadMOD out of the “embarrassing” zone. (It’s as I expected a little difficult when most of my reading time is spent on the SRS decks, which I’m not counting.)
I found it quite easier than I expected. I know enough kanji readings to input an unknown word as “this kanji is the first kanji of this word I know, and then the next one is the first of this other word” much of the time. When that fails, either using the SKIP input in Kotoba! on my iPhone, or the IME pad and Tangorin on the computer, gets the job done infallibly and doesn’t take very long.
The small amount of additional effort, though, seems to trigger something in the brain that aids memory. If you have furigana, you just glance up and there’s your reading, no extra time or effort involved, and the kanji barely registers. But if you have to think about the kanji, consider where else it’s used, or count the strokes for a SKIP input, or even draw it on the IME pad, there is a great deal more involvement. Maybe it could be compared to sketching a landscape as opposed to taking a snapshot of it. Both will help you remember, but putting in the time and paying attention to every part of the scene will help you remember much longer and in more detail.