Reading Japanese For Fun

(Sorry, I haven't made any profit from it yet :-))

[This web page is a copy of a livejournal posting I made back in 2008, saved here as a more permanent record of it. If you have comments, feel free to make them on that LJ page.]

Most people who learn a second language as adults seem to develop strong opinions about how languages ought to be studied, and I'm no exception. One of the things I think is important is graduating from working through textbooks to actually reading genuine books as written for native speakers. For Japanese in particular this is both more challenging and more rewarding than for many other languages. It's a goal to aim for; I find it satisfying to be able to demonstrate to myself that I've actually achieved a measure of literacy in a civilised language. And if you aren't lucky enough to actually be living in Japan, the written word may be the most easily accessible source of genuine not-watered-down-for-students Japanese you have. I'm biased, of course, in that I like reading to start with; and certainly language learning has to start with the spoken word, but do you really want to be wandering around Tokyo like an unlettered barbarian?

So here's my advice on how to get there. My only qualification is that I've gone through this process already, and reached a stage where I can read some novels for pleasure without serious resort to a dictionary. I still have a long way to go, but on the other hand that means I can still remember the difficulties.

Rule 0: Learn to crawl before you try to toddle

Firstly, unless you have at least basic grammar you should probably stick to the textbooks, or you'll just confuse yourself. You can always look up words you don't know, but without basic grammar you'll be struggling to even parse sentences properly to know what you ought to be looking for.

By 'basic grammar' I mean that you ought to have a reasonably solid grasp of the basic patterns of sentences for potential, passive, causative, conditionals and so forth. (For those who know the popular Minna no Nihongo textbooks, this is somewhere around the end of book two.)

Obviously you're going to need a dictionary. I like Jim Breen's fantastic EDICT, which I usually use via the web interface. You'll also need a grammar reference; my suggestion is the Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar and the companion volume the Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar. (I hear rumours that maybe one day the authors will do a final 'Advanced' volume... [Update, Sep 2008: they have.]) If you get stuck on some sentence which doesn't seem to make sense or where you can't find some word in the dictionary, back off a moment and consider whether this isn't some grammar pattern you haven't learned yet. A lot of learners seem to forget to consider this possibility. (For instance, I saw somebody recently produce a very tortured reading of a sentence because they didn't recognise the ~kirenai [too much/many to do ~] suffix and thought it was the negative potential form of kiru [to cut].)

The other thing that probably won't have come up in basic Japanese lessons but which you'll see all the time (especially in manga) is colloquial contractions. Again, these are often not in dictionaries; also if you don't recognise them then you might not be able to extract the plain form of the verb to look that up. Luckily, there aren't very many; the sci.lang.japan FAQ lists the usual ones.

Rule 1: Read what you enjoy reading

To get good at something, you need to practice it. That means that if you want to be any good at reading Japanese you're going to have to read a lot of it. This isn't a substitute for a decent textbook; it's extra hours of working with the language, on top of whatever classes or private study you're already doing. So it had better be at least reasonably interesting, or you just won't want to do it. If you find whatever it is you're reading deadly dull, unbearably childish or just plain too difficult then you're going to start finding excuses for not actually reading it. This is generally a sign that you should try something else! (For instance, I have a copy of the Japanese translation of the Hobbit that I only got partway through before abandoning because it was too heavy going at the time. One day I may go back to it.)

For that matter, you might want to have several books on the go at once, so if you don't feel like reading one you can move forward a bit with another. You can have one which stretches you a bit, and one that's easier for when you don't feel like that much effort.

Rule 2: Goldilocks was right

The ideal book is one you find not too difficult, not too easy, but just right. My rule of thumb is that you want something you can read without having to constantly resort to the dictionary. If you never need to look anything up at all, it's probably too easy. If almost every sentence has three words you don't know, that's probably too hard. You're looking for something where it mostly makes sense so that you can make educated guesses at the words you don't know, and don't end up spending more time reading the dictionary than the book itself.

Rule 3: It's OK to read for gist

This is a corollary of not wanting to spend too much time with the dictionary. If you're reasonably sure that you understand what a sentence means, that's generally good enough. (Feel free to give in to the urge to look up the bit you don't understand sometimes -- otherwise you'd never get any new vocabulary out of the process. Just don't do it all the time.)

Adjectives and adverbs are often prime candidates for skipping. For instance, here's a line from Akagawa Jirou's novel Misu:

Akari laughed again [something] at Takuya's way of speaking.
When I first read this I didn't have a clue what ひとしきり meant; but it's obviously an adverb, so it's just giving us some extra information (a quiet laugh? an irrepressible laugh?). Not knowing this isn't going to confuse us later, so we may as well not worry about it and press on. (In fact ひとしきり means "for a while".)

Rule 4: Goldilocks was right, part 2

Not too long, and not too short. Don't start your forays into reading real Japanese with a long novel, or an enormous manga series. Reading in a second language can be slow going, and the constant feeling that you're only a tiny fraction of the way through can be very disheartening. Short stories are good: long enough to be reasonably substantial reading, but short enough to give you that motivational kick that comes from being able to say you've finished something. On the other hand, you'll often find as you read a story that the same vocabulary crops up again and again (a murder mystery is likely to throw you words like 刑事 [keiji] and 犯人 [hannin], for instance) -- and this repetition naturally helps you remember the vocabulary. If what you're reading is too short then this effect doesn't get as much chance to kick in.

Rule 5: Newspapers are Hard

In my opinion, newspapers are one of the hardest kinds of Japanese to read. An effect noted by David Moser about Chinese applies also to Japanese: even if you are at a high intermediate level, it can still be harder to understand a Japanese newspaper article than one in a Romance language you've never studied at all. This is primarily an issue of vocabulary, and secondarily one of kanji. Spanish and English share enough common roots that when you encounter a phrase like "problema mechanico" you can guess its meaning easily enough. In contrast, if you find a Japanese word you don't know, then it is much harder to guess at its meaning. The kanji aspect is that newspapers tend to more formal Japanese, which means more kanji; and of course they don't generally provide furigana.

Further, newspaper articles fall firmly into the 'too short' category above. Each article deals with a different subject and might introduce a dozen new words specific to that subject. These words might well appear nowhere else in the paper; you don't get the helpful repetition, and the effort of looking them up isn't amortised across multiple uses of the word.

This doesn't mean that there's no point in looking at newspaper articles, of course. Just don't expect it to be easy. I'd suggest picking a specific topic that interests you and trying to read short articles on that topic when they come up on the online versions of the newspapers. Use one of the dictionary-lookup-on-mouseover services like Rikai to reduce the pain of vocabulary lookups, but don't resort to it except where you absolutely must. The Asahi and the Yomiuri both have websites; the Asahi is more liberal and the Yomiuri conservative. The Mainichi's English website offers the handy feature of links from the English versions of stories back to the original Japanese.

Rule 6: You're not a kid you don't necessarily have to read like one. I'm sure the average six-year-old Japanese kid could find half a dozen items in his home which he knew the words for but I didn't; on the other hand would he know 形容詞 ('adjective'), 環境 ('environment') or 客観的 ('objective'), all of which I learnt fairly early?

By all means look in the childrens' books section or at light novels aimed at young teenagers; the latter in particular are probably easier going for the intermediate student than a novel aimed at adult readers. Also, words that would be written with kanji that a reader of that age group isn't expected to have studied yet will be written with furigana or in hiragana, an aid which you won't find in an adult novel. On the other hand you might not be able to stomach the simplistic storylines. Try one and see how it goes.

On the other hand, you have a great deal more background information about the world than a six year old -- so use it! If you're an expert in reciprocating widgets and you're reading an article about them which says "the [something] enters the body of the widget 10 times a second" then you don't need to look up that [something] because any apprentice knows that the thing that goes into the widget body is the piston. In other words, try reading about topics you know about already; it's easier to fill in the gaps and you're more likely to have an interest in the actual content than to be treating it as a pure exercise in language. Geeks might try, for instance. (Of course, if your interest is a technical field like computing you also get a lot of katakana words which can make life easier.)

Rule 7: Home's Best

Every genre will have its own areas of vocabulary. If you read science fiction you're going to need to know the words for 'spaceship', 'meteor', 'orbit'; fantasy manga has its 'crystal tiara', 'magic'; and so on. Obviously you can pick these up as you go along, but as usual we're looking for books where we can avoid having to lean too heavily on the dictionary. When you're learning a second language, the vocabulary you learn first tends to be everyday words: household objects, classroom words like 'test' and 'lesson', ways of describing people. Manga and books set in an average everyday environment are more likely to use words you know already than ones set a thousand years in the past or on another planet. Shoujo high school romance manga are likely to be easier to read than samurai epics.

On the other hand, this doesn't trump rule 1: if you can't stand the soppy stuff then by all means go straight for Naruto, or whatever floats your boat. Besides, I can't talk -- the first manga I read raw was Magic Knight Rayearth :-) You probably want to pick a genre and stick to it, though; at least that way the second historical manga you read will have some familiar words...

Rule 8: Try not to catch anything funny

This rule applies particularly to manga. People will often talk in styles that are:

If you accidentally pick up any of this you're liable to get funny looks at best.

As a rule of thumb, it's best not to trust words or phrases you've only seen in manga; treat it as a way of reinforcing things you've learnt elsewhere rather than a source of new words.

Rule 9: This stuff is cheap

Japanese books and manga are incredibly cheap. If you're not after the most recently published stuff, you can pick up novels for less than 500 yen each. Manga are typically similar prices. And this is assuming you buy new. If you're living in Japan, find your nearest Book-off. This is a second-hand manga and books chain. You have decades of back catalogue to choose from, so you don't need to buy the latest series; Book-off typically sells manga at prices as low as 105 yen a volume. (Warning: they shelve manga sorted by publisher and then by whatever magazine it first appeared in. If you're looking for a specific author you might want to do a quick web search to work out where it's likely to be.)

If you're outside Japan (and don't have a friend in the country willing to raid Book-off for you), my recommendation is the online bookshop BK1. BK1 will ship stuff to you by seamail at cost price, which is by far the cheapest way to get it and the only way to avoid having shipping costs swamp the cost of the actual books. Also as a foreign buyer you won't be charged sales tax. The one major disadvantage is that you have to be able to read enough Japanese to navigate the website -- there is no English user interface. (Amazon Japan has an English UI, but its shipping costs are extortionate.) There's also the minor irritation that BK1 won't tell you how much shipping costs until they've already sent it. (The good news is that this is because as far as I can tell they do it by actually packing the books up and then charging you whatever Japan Post charged them.) As a rough guide, four volumes of manga might cost you about a thousand yen in shipping.

Rule 10: Get recommendations

Walking into a bookshop in Japan or going to the home page of an online bookstore can be a bit overwhelming -- there are huge numbers of books, but how do you find ones which might be interesting and aren't too difficult to read? Once in a bookshop in Tokyo I saw a range of books aimed at learners of English as a foreign language -- editions of classics and modern novels, carefully graded according to level of difficulty. Sadly, I've never seen anything like this for Japanese; presumably the market is too small to make it worth doing. So I've found the best approach is to try to get recommendations of authors from fellow learners, and then (ideally) try browsing the first few pages in the shop to see whether they look tractable.

Here are a few things I think are particularly good or well suited to people dipping their toe into reading real Japanese. However, as always Rule One applies: if your tastes don't match mine then try something else.

As a manga to start reading with, I strongly recommend Yotsuba to! -- the daily life and adventures of a four-year-old girl, by the author of Azumanga Daioh. Extremely funny. Since the main character is four and much of the dialogue is by or to her the Japanese is generally quite simple, and there isn't too much of it either.

Yoshimoto Banana is the author I started with when I first tried reading 'real books' rather than manga. Her writing style is plain and conversational, and the books have quite a bit of dialogue, so they're relatively straightforward. If you're only at an intermediate level you'll find that the descriptive passages tend to use a wider range of vocabulary than you're used to; you can look some of it up or skim it as you like. うたかた / サンクチュアリ [utakata / sankuchuari] [ISBN: 4-10-135916-4] is a pair of medium length stories. I've also read Kitchen, probably her most famous novel; the cautions in Rule 4 apply, though.

This is the opening paragraph of Utakata, to give you a taste of the difficulty level:

   ここが日本だからまだよかったが、外国だったらそんなのほとんど友達以前の範疇 だ。そしてすぐに彼は遠い所に行ってしまった。だから、私にはまだこれが恋かどう かも本当にはわからない。さっぱり、わかっていない。
   それでも嵐を好きになってから私は、恋というものを桜や花火のようだと思わなく なった。

Akagawa Jirou (赤川次郎) is an extremely prolific author of murder mysteries; Wikipedia says he's written over 480 books! I'm currently halfway through 'Misu', which the back cover describes as 'humour/suspense'; it has elements of farcical humour as well as the murder plot, and the heroine is an engaging character. Here's the opening:

   健全な目覚めは誰でも似通ったものであるが、二日酔の目覚めは ー まあ、これもたいてい似たようなものだ。

[UPDATE Jan 2009: here are a couple more opening paragraphs:

スプートニクの恋人 by Haruki Murakami (村上春樹):


エデン改造計画 (a science fiction short story) by Hoshi Shin'ichi (星 新一):


End update.]

Searching the sci.lang.japan newsgroup archives should bring up further suggestions from other people, too.

But the most important thing is just to read something, anything; these rules are simply intended to help you avoid some of the common pitfalls that might result in an aversion to the whole idea of reading real Japanese. It really is worth the effort in the end.