A lot of people like to talk about what really made them who they are in the language they’re learning. “I learned from J-dramas“, or “Video games were my study method of choice,” or “Anime is the reason my Japanese is where it is today,” or “If it wasn’t for Japanese music…”
I love all of those things, but if any one single thing can be said to have advanced my Japanese in a significant way, it has been the ample Free Papers of Japan. It’s my secret weapon, a constant method and reminder to keep learning and to keep connected, even in travel downtime. Each paper is small, almost insignificant, but make a habit of studying them every day, and you’ll soon be a force to be reckoned with.
What exactly is a free paper?
It’s not an official term, but it is exactly what it sounds like: any type of free publication, often presented to the public on a wire rack at a train station. Job magazines, local maps, restaurant directories, wedding catalogues, political ads, recipe books, non-profit group newsletters, or even children’s stories. Try as I might, I can’t seem to remember a place in the western world where free publications of this quality were so ubiquitous.
A lot of learners seem to focus on finding one big reading material purchase, the one book or novel or comic that will be so inspiring it can hold their attention, that they will pore over page after page. Pages are small, interconnected pieces of a larger, more intimidating whole. Who here has bought a Japanese publication only to run out of steam less than 20% of the way through? As your level goes up, it becomes easier and easier to tackle larger pieces of work, but until then, free papers are a cheap, easy, fun alternative to jump into reading.
Free papers’ free-ness doesn’t just cover their monetary cost, but also time and space investments as well. They’re generally small and light, to make them an attractive thing for commuters to pick up, flip through, and often ditch with no commitment to worry about. Commitment is scary, tiring, and heavy.
But a 20-page free magazine that’s 30% ads? You can estimate its value in the time it takes for your train to arrive, without the “I’m studying Japanese” pressure having time to queue up. Like what you see? Stuff it in your bag! See only one or two interesting pages? Tear them out right then and there! The disposablity of these papers actually makes it easier to jump into studying them, and you can write on, mark up or cut them up guilt-free!
When your reading skill is low, your attention span drops quite sharply as well. Free papers help combat this by offering their content in small, digestable chunks, and by using the layout and typeface creatively to highlight important points for those who are skimming.
I pick up free papers everywhere I go.
It started out as a desperate attempt to feel connected to the community while I was working at my stressful eikaiwa job, but the benefits for studying soon became very clear to me. If I left the house, I would have some type of Japanese paper in my hands, some type of Japanese script entering my eyeballs. It’s OK if I only learn a few words from it occasionally; the greater improvement was in my speed, and the casualness that I developed for reading Japanese.
Taking a trip to Japan?
Free papers might very well be worth their weight in gold to you. They provide a side of printed Japanese that you might never see. Don’t let your family and friends laugh at you when you bring home a stack of job magazines, shop indexes, karaoke advertisements and municipal newsletters! The vocabulary in these is more varied than an equal volume of manga, the advertisements have Japanese-language brevity down to a science, and the format will naturally draw you to skim, reinforcing your extensive reading skills.
Already live in Japan?
You’re probably already inundated with free papers. If not, staff at your local community center (which itself will be loaded with public-service pamplets on cancer screenings, raising children, and flu shots) can probably ensure that the stream of junkish mail coming to your house never ceases by signing you up for local papers and newsletters.
With their help, I started to receive a local ad-riddled newspaper once a week. In addition to that, through no effort of my own, every month I get two municipal newsletters and city council reports, one prefectural newsletter, a water treatment pamplet (more interesting than it sounds) and a lifestyle magazine from the gas company trying to peddle IH cooking heaters.
Are a lot of these papers junky and ultimately boring or useless?
Yes, sometimes. You might only intensively study 5% of the publications that pass through your life in Japan. But consider this: even the act of skimming a Japanese publication to decide whether to throw it away or not builds your skills! When you think of it that way, going out of your way to collect free papers isn’t such a bad idea.
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