Recently a few people asked me if I could provide a list of suggested novels for Japanese learners who don’t have enough experience yet to tackle popular adult novels, like those from authors like Haruki Murakami. In this post I’ll try to address that question and provide some related thoughts.
Knowing what type of reading material is appropriate is one of the challenges that is especially tricky for self taught learners of a foreign language. In a traditional class setting where a small group of students learn together with a teacher over a several month period, the teacher should be able to ascertain a good idea of each of student’s abilities, including their knowledge of culture, grammar, characters, and vocabulary. By using techniques like periodic quizzes to provide feedback on whether the students are truly understanding the material they have been given, the reading materials assigned can be even further refined.
On the other hand, it’s much more difficult to figure out the abilities of someone who is learning a language in a less controlled environment. This is especially true of reading and writing, which I’ve found correlate somewhat weakly to the number of years the language was studied, or number of years lived in a country where that language is spoken, at least compared to listening comprehension or conversational skill. Everyone learns at a different rate, so there is a risk to saying “If you’ve studied X years, then surely this book will be a good fit for you”.
When you are dealing with a language like Japanese, which is acknowledged as one of the most difficult languages to learn for English speakers, there is also a danger that a student could get frustrated after one or more failed attempts to read such recommended works, potentially leading to a temporary or permanent hiatus from studying that language.
Therefore, my number one recommendation is to actually make the effort to seek out and discover yourself the reading materials that are the best for you. As to where to search, here is a summary of sources, most of which I’ve discussed in previous posts:
- Brick-and-mortal Japanese bookstores in the US: Kinokuniya and Book-Off (details)
- Booklive.jp: Japanese E-books (details)
- Ebook Japan: another great E-book site. I don’t use this much myself but know people who do (details)
- Syosetu.com: Thousands of free (unpublished) novels in Japanese (details)
There is one thing in common with all these options: they all allow some form of perusing through books before you buy them (立ち読み), whether it’s getting your hands on the physical book or a free digital sample of a few pages.
I’ve loved bookstores since I was a child. There’s nothing quite like the adventure of jumping freely through thousands of microcosms, looking for something that catches your interest. Start by just trying to read and understand their titles, then go deeper for those that sound more interesting. Be careful about using their marketing summaries as an indicator of difficulty, as they frequently contain more advanced language than the book itself due to the need to pack alot into a small space. It’s better to actually read the first sentence, paragraph, or even page to see whether it fits your linguistic abilities, and more importantly, whether you enjoy it.
I’ve found that If I’m really interested in where a story is going, I can push myself that much harder to get through difficult books. On the other hand, if something that perfectly matches my reading level bores me to death, odds are I won’t get to the end.
If you aren’t sure where to start, try simple children’s books (絵本、児童書, etc.). These are great for those of you who haven’t picked up much Kanji yet but are eager to read “real” books. Many also have spaces between the words which is a great help to beginners. You can find a surprising amount of cultural references in some of these, whether they are overt or subtle.
You can gradually move onto more advanced books, like those targeting boys and girls (少年向けの小説, 少女向けの小説), and eventually graduate to adult novels. Even within adult novels, the range of difficultly is so great than you shouldn’t get disheartened just because you had trouble understanding one of them. Don’t be afraid to go back to easier books if you find a certain genre of books is our of your league.
One thing that is good to know if you are just getting into reading more advanced Japanese is that each book has it’s own learning curve. What I mean by this is that things will typically get gradually easier as you read, but depending on the material (and your own experience), there is usually one or two points in time when things seem to suddenly get easier. You can imagine these visually as sudden bends in the curve of difficultly vs time. This because your mind eventually adjusts to the author’s style, including some of their commonly used grammatical patterns, expressions, and words. For some works I’ve noticed this after a few pages, for others nearly a quarter of the way through or perhaps longer. This is one reason once you’ve found something that is hard, but not too hard, it’s usually worth pushing yourself through at least 10 or 20 pages. You might be surprised how fast you pick up the patterns.
For those that have read and enjoyed one or more books in English which was translated from Japanese, that author’s other works are great candidates since you have some idea what to expect.
I’ve been writing this post with mostly novels in mind, but if you have typically read comic books in English, then I’d stick to Japanese manga for awhile until you get comfortable enough to try novels. Some popular manga series will have spin-off novels set in the same world as the manga that should be even easier for you to get into if you’re already a fan of that series (I mention one of these at the end of this post).
One necessary step to ensuring healthy reading skill development is knowing what your weaknesses are. With the exception of very basic children’s books, unless you have a strong foundation in grammar you’re reading sessions are going to be very slow going and frustrating. It’s true that looking up new vocabulary words can be tedious, but leveraging a popular online dictionary means the process of getting a rough understanding is pretty straightforward. Grammar, on the other hand, is much harder to research in the middle of a read, and can consume a great deal more time. If you are uncomfortable about your grammar knowledge, I’d devote at least half of your available study time to reading a grammar textbook or other grammar-intensive material until you feel you really have a good command of grammar.
One of the trickier areas of more advanced reading material is learning to parse long sentences. Even if you know all the grammar involved, getting your head around a 5-6 line sentence is a skill that takes time and careful analysis of the its structure. This is one reason that you want to gradually ramp up to more difficult texts as you hone your parsing skills over time. (I may write a post on this in the future since I haven’t seen too much written on it elsewhere)
Having said all that, I’d still like to give a few recommendations based on books I’ve read. (I’ve you are eager to get reading, you can start with #4)
Recommended Japanese books
- キッチン by 吉本ばなな
This is one of the very first adult novels I read, which I attempted after a few years of studying the language. Though I didn’t understand all of it back then, the themes involved are relatively simple and the story isn’t too had to follow. Knowing a few hundred basic Kanji is recommend though. Many years later, the story of this book has almost completely left my mind, but I don’t regret reading it as a early stepping stone to increased reading comprehension.
You can see a sample of the beginning of the book here.
2. 蹴りたい背中 by 綿矢りさ
I tried this book within a year of reading キッチン, purchasing it online since it was one of the few books that was available on a internet bookstore I used to frequent (“Sasuga” which closed in 2010 unfortunately). As with キッチン, the story wasn’t quite my thing, but the difficultly level was just enough for me to not get too frustrated.
You can see a sample of the book here.
3. 指定席〜ショートショート王国 by 赤川次郎
This book has much simpler grammar compared to the above two works. Since it’s a short story collection, it is perfect to give added satisfaction when you finish an entire story.
I wrote a detailed review on it here.
4. ブランコの向こうで by 星新一
This has a great story and also relatively simple grammar and vocabulary. It also has an English translation so you can use that to compare against, though generally I don’t recommend that unless you are aiming to become a translator.
I wrote a detailed review of it here.
5. キャンディ･キャンディ Final Story by 名木田 恵子
This story is based off the classic Manga and Anime series “Candy Candy”. While it’s decidedly written to target a female audience, I still enjoyed it’s twists and turns, and it’s honest depiction of a young girl’s feelings. The grammar and vocabulary isn’t too bad, but the story is made up of two books which means you’ll need a little extra endurance to finish the story.
I wrote a detailed review of it here.
If you have any recommendations for novels that you feel are appropriate for early readers, feel free to let me know in the comments. If I get enough responses I may make a separate post to list them all out.
As a final note, if you decide to try one of these works, or any other book, and get stuck early one, feel free to send me a comment. I can try to help explain things so you can get a little further.
Thanks for the really useful article!
I have read some short stories for children from the 10分で読めるお話 series. They are pretty straightforward but I started at the low end, stories for 一年生 and they have very few kanji. So I have been wading through lots of hiragana, and I agree with you – it’s quite difficult!
I have a book of 星新一 short stories, but still find them too challenging. I hope to read it soon though.