Hey listen, sometimes you gotta take it easy on the Nihongo. Sometimes you look at some heavy tome and go, “You know what? No. I want some popcorn for my brain.” So, you pop into the library and check out the kids’ section for a light read. And what I found was the series 動物と話せる少女リリアーネ. The original German title for the first book is Liliane Susewind. Mit Elefanten spricht man nicht! by Tanya Stewner.
I had some grand plan of reading more than ten Japanese novels this year in order to improve my reading, vocabulary, and what have you. I have since reached a grand total of three. Which, hey, is a far better number than zero, but it’s not anywhere near where I wanted to be.
One of my favorite downtime pastimes is to walk into a bookstore and browse, no matter where I am. Depending on the size of the bookstore/my ability to read the language, I can be in the same shop for hours. And while many people spend those hours standing in place and reading through a book, I’ll be flitting back and forth between multiple sections, delighting in everything available I have yet to read.
On one such outing, I came across また、同じ夢を見ていた (I saw the same dream again) by 住野よる (Sumino Yoru). It looked cute, I could read the title and first page without help and, most importantly, the story looked interesting to me.
Want to read something that goes from adorable to tragic to horrifying, then back to unbearably cute in a matter of sentences? ドッグカフェワンノアール by Syo Ishida ( 石田祥) might be for you.
Set in Kyoto, the tale follows the story of a young woman named Rin Morigawa (森川凛), a part-time worker at a Dog Cafe. Rin’s life is pretty typical; she shares an apartment with a roommate to make ends meet and goes to work. Oh, and she can see and talk to ghosts.
More on that later.
One day while going to work, she sees a box with four puppies in it. It’s too late for all but one of them, a little girl with a heart-shaped mark on her forehead. Rin rescues this pup, named Silvie, and from there her adventures begin.
Some of her adventures are run of the mill–friends dealing with dog allergies, people at the cafe hitting on her–but others are much more supernatural. Many of her customers at the Dog Cafe end up bringing in their histories, including ghosts of loved ones. These ghosts, upon realizing Rin can see them, lead her to clues to solve the mysteries behind their own deaths. Some take longer than others. From a young boy who was terrified of being alone, to a kind worker who worried about the cafe he worked in, Rin deals with several situations with the help of Silvie (who can also sense ghosts), Sasao, her boss, and a local policeman named Maki (真木) who tries very hard to help out while not giving away what a huge crush he has on the oblivious Rin.
Rin is a fun character to follow; she’s stubborn once she sets her mind on something (like keeping her new pet dog), and despite being terrified in some cases she pushes through to solve the mysteries she’s dragged into. And she is wonderfully oblivious to people attempting to flirt with her, which makes you cringe and laugh.
This is the first book in a series. Despite some sad themes, there are plenty of charming moments. More importantly, whatever happens in book 1, Silvie the dog is safe. As a dog-lover, I don’t like books or movies that show them getting hurt or killed; I’d like to reassure you that in this book, at least, Silvie always ends up fine.
This book is in all Japanese, but it doesn’t use a lot of technical terms nor are the plots overly complicated, so it’s a great opportunity to practice reading everyday vocabulary. Furigana is not often used, unless it’s to help you with the reading of a character’s name, so make sure you’ve got a dictionary handy if kanji is not your strong suit.
Have you read anything good lately?
I am one of those people who refuses to stop halfway through a book unless it is truly terrible. I’m talking about, “My English teacher assigned a list of really boring, really horrible old books to read during the summer in the name of ‘expanding our horizons'” type of terrible. So when I pick up a book and it merely ranks a “meh” on my interest levels, I will be determined to plow through it.
Even if it takes me six months.
Enter Karakuri Yumedokei (からくり夢時計）, or “Dream Clocks” by Masayuki Kawaguchi.
This is less of a blog post and more of a question I’d like to put out there in regards to the books I’ve read in Japanese thus far.
After reading a novel geared more toward university students and up, my book club friend and I opted to try for a book more aimed for younger audiences. Having a craving for school-related shenanigans, we picked up this book: てんからどどん by 魚住直子。
Meet Karin, a middle school girl who has a bunch of friends, a family who loves bad jokes, and who loves to speak her mind. In some cases, too much; her friends are on her case about comparing people to things. Why, though? Pigs are cute, right? What’s the big deal?
Meet Riko, a middle school girl who barely speaks in class. It’s true the lack of socializing has done wonders for her grades, but being alone has done a number on her self-esteem. She eats snacks for comfort, and as the school trip approaches, she desperately posts a message on the internet: “Someone please come kill me. I don’t want to endure this trip alone.”
The story follows these two girls as they board an elevator at the same time, and something magical happens that will forever change how they see the world around them.
This is a fun tale; picture Freaky Friday in a middle school setting and that’s what you’ll get. There are some darker subjects touched upon in this book- depression, loneliness, one’s “place” in a family-but there are some lighter, fun parts too. Karin takes the unusual situation they’re in very well, and considers it a great opportunity to change; Riko, not having any other ideas, follows along and is grateful for it.
For the most part, it’s set in their school, where their classmates notice something strange is up with the two girls but don’t know what. The reader gets to see each girl’s life, including interactions with their families. Despite the darker themes, it ends on a happy, hopeful note, albeit an abrupt one. I’m starting to wonder if that’s just a writing style choice in Japanese, as I experienced that in my previous read too.
Geared toward: Junior high schoolers and up. Some kanji, but lots of furigana and casual language.
Level required to read this book: I think you can comfortably read this at N3. I didn’t have to look anything up to understand and enjoy the book, but at N3 or lower you probably will need to.
Good for study: Speaking-wise, sure, it’s got great casual speaking and wordplay. If you’re looking for vocabulary for the JLPT, maybe not.
Length of time to read it: I didn’t keep track, honestly, because I was busy wondering what was going to happen next.
Read it again: Maybe. It’s enjoyable, but I’d prefer to see if the writer has published any other works.
…is, all things considered, very similar to purchasing a book in your native tongue.
All right, so, you’ve gotten enough vocabulary, grammar and determination to try reading in your second language of choice. What’s your first step? How do you survive without coming away with a book that a) you don’t understand or, even worse, b) don’t like?
There are some simple things you can do to help yourself out.
- Look online for recommendations. Before you even go to the bookstore, think of what you enjoy reading and put your favorite search engine to good use. Let’s say that I’m looking for good Light Novels in Japanese. Well, I could search “recommended Light Novels” in English, or maybe, “ライトノベルおすすめ” or maybe “ライトノベル人気”. Have an author you hear is good? Search for their name on your favorite book or shopping website and see what comes up.
- Know what section of the bookstore your novel will be in. I don’t mean look up a map of your bookstore before you go, but make sure you know what the name of the section is. Is it general fiction? A self-help book? An exercise guide? Knowing what category your book falls into will help you (and potentially the staff!) in finding something relevant to your interests.
- Look for a cool cover. Okay I know that sounds silly; insert saying about books, judging by their covers, etc., but I fully admit to being drawn to a cool cover. Let yourself have fun choosing books in whatever way works for you once you’re at the bookstore.
- Can you read the title? Now you’ve got a book in your hand. Can you read and understand it without having to look anything up? This is a pretty good measure for your level versus what you’re challenging yourself with.
- Can you read the first page? This part is a little more flexible. Read the first page. How long does it take you? Can you do it without looking anything up, or can you see a couple words you need to check? At this point, keep in mind that you do not need to understand 100% of what you see on that page. It’s totally fine to notice some things that don’t make sense- that happens in our native languages too, right? What should concern you is if you crack it open and only understand about 50% or less of what you see. If you get around 75% or so of what you’re reading, awesome, you’re at a good level for yourself.
Another possibility is the question “can you read the blurb inside the cover/on the back of the book”, which is a fair enough gauge too, but I find that reading the first page is a great way to see if you like the writing style, as well.
These are just some ways to find what you need in a bookstore; if you have more ideas, please do share them!
I’ve been in Japan long enough to have taken the JLPT multiple times; in December 2015 I came away with (barely!) passing the N2. Upon discovering this, students of English end up asking me what my secret is. How do I study?
The honest answer? ….I don’t. I am terrible at studying. I get into ruts where I won’t touch a textbook for months.
What I do do, however, is play.
I’m a bookworm at heart; in America I’ve got multiple boxes of childhood books I hope I’ll never lose. Since my time in Japan I’ve gotten well over a hundred books on my Kindle and multiple bookshelves worth of books, despite my efforts not to buy too many physical paperbacks. I have memories of spending my days at summer day camp in fifth grade curled up in a corner reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.
It’s only natural that, upon coming to Japan, I had a goal in mind language-wise: to become literate in the native language.
As I said, I don’t go to textbooks for practicing reading (unless I have a test or am really stumped about a grammar point). Here are some of the things I have done to practice my reading.
- NHK’s Easy News. For those of you wanting to read current events and practice reading short essays, this is a good bet. All of the kanji have furigana and are easy to look up, the stories are short and simple, and many of the stories have audio you can listen to while you read. They also have an app version of the site for Android gadgets.
- 児童書、 or children’s books. The kids here have to learn how to read all of those crazy kanji too, y’know! Walking into a bookstore or library, the staff should be able to help point you to the right corner. Go for elementary school books if you want to get a feel for your actual level. If you’re N3 or higher, you should be able to tackle a junior high school level book. Many foreign books have been translated into Japanese, from Matilda to Lord of the Rings, so you can start off with something familiar to you before you dive into something entirely new.
- Comic books. If you enjoy reading manga or western comics, this is a great place to start. You get the pictures, of course, to help you with the context of whatever’s going on, and just like with regular books there’s a crazy amount of options out there depending on your interests/reading levels. I was working on the new Sailor Moon when I was around N4 level, but I feel like as long as you have a grasp on hiragana and katakana you should be able to settle in and work your way through. Please do note that for more “adult” comics they won’t use furigana as much, though, so check your comic before you buy/borrow! Again, starting with a series you’re already familiar with can help a lot.
If you’re actively studying Japanese in school, ask your teacher(s) if they have more resources to check out. I recall struggling through the Hiragana Times when I was in university and it helping me, as well.
Best of luck in reading!
(NOTE: I’ve noticed a lot of folks peeking at this recently–this is an old review for the Japanese version of the light novel. Just FYI!)
As someone who lives in a foreign country, one of my goals upon coming here was to eventually become literate. My definition of literate is that I’m able to walk into a bookstore, pick something off the shelf, and be able to read the blurb inside the cover to see if it’s something I might enjoy.
In December 2015, I passed the JLPT N2 by a meager two points, so I suppose that technically puts me at the level of “able to use business-level Japanese”. In my day-to-day life, however, I place myself comfortably at N3, which is more “able to use daily conversation and sometimes rant about the economy in short sentences level Japanese”. I am able to go to a movie without subtitles, read the messages my Japanese friends send me on Line, and other daily activities without too much trouble.
But there is always room for improvement, and as an avid reader I decided, along with a friend, to start up a Japanese Book Club. Very recently, we finished the first book for said club: 京都寺町三条のホームズ by 望月 麻衣。
The story follows a high school girl named Aoi, who has just moved to Kyoto from her home up in Tokyo after the ending of a rocky relationship. Upon wandering the covered arcade street Teramachi, she finds a little antique shop, in which a university student, Kiyotaka, works. Kiyotaka is an enigmatic young man who people often come to in order to solve little mysteries about their antiques, and for that–as well as other reasons explored in the book–he is granted the nickname “Holmes”. As such, Aoi slowly but surely becomes the “Watson” in the tale as she starts a part-time job at the antique shop and learns more about his family and Kyoto as a whole.
Originally, I expected it to be more of a mystery novel with an overarching plot. To my surprise, the book is actually broken up into several smaller “books”, each with its own story arc. While several little mysteries are explored in the text, the tale is really more about the developing relationship between Aoi and “Holmes”.
As someone who knows Kyoto fairly well by now, I enjoyed reading Aoi’s perspective on several places, from Teramachi street itself to Kamogawa River and the shrines throughout the city. Likewise, reading Holmes’ explanations of the local customs were also interesting for me as they often tied in with my own experiences. Someone who has been to Kyoto is likely to get more enjoyment out of the story, but the descriptions are pretty easy to follow and I found myself picturing certain places pretty clearly.
Another thing I enjoyed was the character of “Holmes” himself. Aoi plays as a great foil to his personality. Like Sherlock Holmes, his interest in a given case is gone the instant he’s solved it, even while others are still trying to understand how he figured everything out. He also has a tendency to set up his “Watson” to unwittingly help him on cases, which can leave her irritated at him.
One thing that I found odd was the author’s (or perhaps the publisher’s) choice in furigana. As someone who is still regularly struggling with kanji, I look for furigana to understand the reading of new vocabulary so I can easily look it up and, in the future, pronounce the word properly. While furigana was littered throughout the text, especially for Kyoto-centric things people wouldn’t be familiar with, I found it strange that a kanji would be introduced first without the help. Then, after it had appeared two or three times, you would finally stumble across it with the helpful furigana next to it. Why was it not introduced together the first couple of times instead?
Another thing that bothered me somewhat was the ending. It did not feel like a conclusion at all. Rather it felt like the ending of an episode to a TV series or cartoon, where nothing has been resolved because the writers are confident there will be a sequel. While there are in fact, several books following this one, I don’t like the idea that the book can’t stand entirely on its own.
That said, I will be reading the second book to see if it provides any better conclusions to the story. I’ve already invested enough time in these characters and settings, so why not?
Geared toward: Given the main characters’ ages and personalities, this is geared toward people in high school/university and up.
Level required to read this book: Definitely JLPT N3, preferably higher if you don’t want to spend hours looking up vocabulary
Good for study: I’d say yes. Lots of repeating vocabulary, and the main characters tend to use standard Japanese (with hints of Kyoto-ben here and there from side characters)
Length of time to read it: Took me about 3 minutes per page at my current level without looking anything up, and the book is 306 pages.
Read it again: Yes. I’ll want to look at it again in a year or so to see if I’ve improved any reading-wise.