Osaka – I was afraid to read Japanese books. I know it might sound silly, but the idea of tackling long chunks of text was daunting. Even though I had an advanced command of the language, my reading was slow and awkward, and did little for my self-confidence.
So I would put off trying to read Japanese books. Having too much work can be an easy enough excuse to pick up a new habit, but the more I push it away, the more guilty I feel. Finally, I got it, and for those of you looking for a New Year’s resolution for 2022, I’d like to suggest a few places to get you started on reading.
Things changed for me when I took “魔女 の 宅急便” (“Majo no Takkyubin”) By 角 野 栄 子 (Kadono Eiko, Eiko Kadono), better known in English as “Kiki’s delivery service”. What set this book apart from others I had tried was that I wanted to read it. It’s a simple change, but the shift from “need” to “want” helped me finish my first Japanese novel from start to finish.
“魔女 の 宅急便” is not very long (about 240 pages), but it still took me about two months to go through it. The process was also surprising in that I started to engage with the language in a way that I had never done before.
From there, I had the courage to try to read more, devoting 10 minutes each day to the effort. It became 20 minutes, then 30 minutes, and eventually I was able to read a novel every two to three weeks.
One of the tips I received when I first started reading novels was to jot down words I didn’t know so that I could study them later. But doing it started to feel like having to master the vocabulary of one book before embarking on the next, and this “urge” deterred me from reading again. So I made the choice not to study all the new words that I encountered in my reading. Of course, I would look for a few to help with understanding, but in many cases I started to grasp meanings only from context. Soon I would notice the words, kanji, and grammar in other novels.
Some of the most memorable words I’ve picked up from my readings include 辟 易 (hekieki, grimace), 種 明 か し (taneakashi, the secret of a trick) and 眼光 (gankō, the glow in a person’s eye). It is also thanks to novels that I know a surprisingly common advanced vocabulary and kanji like 躊躇 (chôcho, hesitate), 流暢 (ryūchō, language proficiency), 驚愕 (kyōgaku, astonishment) and 噤 む (tsugumu, to be silent). These aren’t words you’ll hear in everyday conversation, but they pop up over and over again in a wide variety of written texts.
Japanese books have not only exposed me to vocabulary and kanji, but to the history and social issues of this country, as well as a variety of complex topics ranging from politics to medicine.
For example, “私 、 定時 で 帰 り ま す。” (“Watashi, Teiji of Kaerimasu.”“ No work after hours! ”) Is a novel by 朱 野 帰 子 (Akeno Kaeruko, Kaeruko Akeno) on a woman struggling with overwork. After seeing her father and her ex-fiancé almost working to death, she decides never to work overtime. The story is a vivid description of the various societal pressures on Japanese people to work too much and the impact this has on their health and relationships.
The book not only tells you about the culture of overwork, but also about the history of Japan. The (Inparu sakusen, Battle of Imphal) is mentioned as the protagonist’s father describes the military campaign in which 100,000 Japanese soldiers were forced to cross the mountains into India with only enough supplies for 1 in 10 men. Thousands of people died as a result, and the author draws a parallel with the reckless plans of those in power that make their subordinates suffer.
Bullying is another social issue that is often the subject of engaging stories. “か が み の 孤子” (“Kagami no Kojo, “” Lonely castle in the mirror “) by 辻 村 深 月 (Tsujimura Mizuki, Mizuki Tsujimura) and “よ る の ば け も の” (“Yoru no Bakemono, “” At night I become a monster “) by 住 野 よ る (Sumino yoru, Yoru Sumino) are two fantastic novels that deal with the issue of bullying in school. “か が み の 孤’ focuses on children who are 仲 間 は ず れ (nakama hazure, ostracized) and the pressure on other children to maintain this status quo in order to avoid being ostracized themselves. “よ る の ば け も の” tackle 不 登 校 (futōko, truancy) and children who skip school for months or years.
In addition to the novels mentioned above, I would recommend a series called “鹿 の 王” (“Shika no Ou, “” The King of the Deer “) by the writer 上 橋 菜 穂 子 (Uehashi Nahoko, Nahoko Uehashi). It follows two protagonists, an escaped war criminal and a medic, as an unknown disease begins to sweep through their lands. Similar to George RR Martin’s “Game of Thrones” series, Uehashi uses fantasy to get stuck in the weeds of politics and international relations. And, relevant to the current climate, it also discusses pandemics, vaccinations, and how politics and medicine interact in complex ways that can have lasting impacts on society.
So these are my current picks for those who want to tackle Japanese reading this year. And believe me, even if you think you are not yet at the level where you can read an entire Japanese book, you will be surprised at how fluent you are.
In a time of both disinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing you can help us tell the story right.