3 Easy Japanese Novels For Beginners

Making the jump from textbooks and Anki to the reading world is a challenge. Even books for young children assume a strong vocabulary and knowledge of Japanese, and may leave you feeling a slight loss of confidence.  Regardless of how rocky it may be, you have to start somewhere.  The following three series are short and entertaining, and have very few of the troubling nuances of Japanese literature that you are not used to yet.

3 Easy Japanese Novels For Beginners 1
3.魔女の宅急便
(The Witch’s Delivery Service) by Kadono Eiko
Japanese Level: ☆

魔女の宅急便

This series of six books inspired the Ghibli animated movie Kiki’s Delivery Service. Even if you’ve seen the movie, about a young witch who travels to a distant city and earns her living with a flying delivery service, there’s a lot that will be new to you.  The stories are sweet and funny, the language is simple but clever, and the chapters are short enough to read quickly. I like reading children’s books because of the abundance of furigana.  While children’s books often can be boring and formulaic, and don’t quite appeal to the adult mind, I believe this series is an exception that can be appreciated by all ages.

2. 君が見つける物語
series (Stories You Find For Yourself) – various authors, edited by Kadokawa Publishing
Japanese Level: ☆☆

君が見つける物語

The 君が見つける物語 series brings together short stories by semi-famous to really famous authors, chosen for their reading level and their entertainment value to teenagers. Each volume has its own teenager theme such as school, friendship, love, and horror. Don’t be turned off by this seemingly “young adult” genre, as this isn’t a boring collection of teen angst stories. The stories are written at an adult level, but in conversational, easy-to-read styles, and with slightly more furigana than the average adult novel.

Short stories like these are perfect for beginning readers because you don’t have to commit to a huge amount of reading.  Also, if you are having trouble following the plot or understanding one story out of many, it won’t ruin the whole book for you.  They are a great way to sample new authors, and by reading this series you can get a taste of a lot of big names of contemporary Japanese literature such as Murakami Haruki, Yoshimoto Banana, Miyabe Miyuki, and Otsuichi.

1.キッチン
(Kitchen) by Yoshimoto Banana
Japanese Level: ☆☆

キッチン

If you are going to dive right into a famous contemporary work of fiction, this is a great novel to begin with. The story focuses around Mikage, who was raised by her grandmother, and when she dies she loses her only blood relative. She ends up being taken in by a university classmate, Yuuichi, and his mother, who is transgendered. It is a slow, sweet, melancholy story about what it means to be a family, by blood or by choice, and about the ways food – and kitchens – bring us together. Because the focus is tightly on personal relationships and daily life, anyone who watches a lot of J-dramas probably has enough vocabulary to get started with this book.

This book will introduce you to some of the big themes of Japanese literature – the transience of all things, and how we make meaning for ourselves in a cold universe.  Sounds too deep?  Don’t worry, you’ll end up liking these themes.  And with this book, katsudon as well.

Do you have a favorite beginner novel? What kind of adversity did you face the first time you tried reading fiction in Japanese?



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3 Easy Japanese Novels For Beginners — 24 Comments

  1. I’m going to look for 魔女の宅急便 the next time I buy Japanese books. I’d love to hear more recommendations of children’s books that are enjoyable by the kind of adults that enjoy children’s books.

    I’m currently reading my first Japanese novel, a translation of a book I read many times as a kid. Normally a translation wouldn’t be my first choice, but already knowing everything that happens really helps when I don’t understand everything.

    • I am a YA librarian, so I’m definitely the sort of person who appreciates great children’s books, but because I didn’t have easy access to Japanese books in my first years of learning the language, I never read that many children’s books.

      Uehashi Nahoko’s 獣の奏者 series is a little bit more difficult than 魔女の宅急便 — it’s more in the genre of “epic fantasy” rather than “domestic fantasy” — but it’s very well written. The 怪談レストラン series is a bit formulaic but fun, ditto the こちら妖怪新聞社 series.

    • Apologies for being over a year late but 時をかける少女 is another easy to read classic and roughly the same level.

  2. I loved the idea of a book guide. Extremely helpful. Emily, I was already a reader of your blog, so it is with great pleasure that I see you getting involved with Japanese Level Up.

    I love reading, few thing in life give me as much pleasure as an accomplished novel or a well-crafted short story. Actually, I’m doing a Portuguese-Japanese double major and my academic specialization field just happens to be literature. But, the thing is, my Japanese level is still quite low (N4), so trying to read Japanese adult fiction is a frustratingly arduous and slow process.

    Many thanks for these recommendations. I’ll try to go with 魔女の宅急便 for starters. As for キッチン, I’ve already read the book (and many other works of Yoshimoto Banana) in English, but I’d definitely love reading it in the original. Same thing goes for Murakami Haruki (read all of his translated works), who is probably one of my main sources of motivation to learn Japanese.

    • I think I’ll do a post soon about resources I recommend as a stepping stone to learners who aren’t ready for authentic texts, but the White Rabbit graded reader series is awesome for anyone up to an intermediate level.

      Kids and second language learners have totally different needs when starting to read, which is why the really good Extensive Reading programs in Asia start kids with readers developed specifically for second language learners. There aren’t many resources like that for Japanese, but the White Rabbit series is definitely as step in the right direction.

      Murakami Haruki has a lot of novels that are not that hard, by the way. Hard-Boiled Wonderland or Kafka On the Shore just have too many bells and whistles and cuckoo clocks to concentrate on the story, but if you read Norwegian Wood or Sputnik Sweetheart or another of his more mundane books, they’re only maybe a little bit harder than Yoshimoto.

  3. Last summer, I tried reading “1 Litre of Tears” and “Sasara Saya”, but couldn’t. I just didn’t understand the context of Sasaya Saya, and with 1 Litre of Tears, after about three chapters, I started getting lost.

    I kicked off my reading, instead, with manga. I feel this is really the place to start for people who are intermediate learners. There are pictures that serve as visual aids, and a lot of manga have furigana which makes it easier to look up words. Now I read manga all the time.

    This Sunday, I plan on starting my mid-semester with a challenge to read my first light novel (Kino no Tabi). My husband owns a dozen books from the series. I wonder what the difference between a light novel and shousetsu is. Are light novels easier to read, or just shorter? Light novels have some visuals, such as manga insets. But anyways, to assist with my reading, I plan on deeply studying the Kino no Tabi episodes as well. A lot of light novel are paired with an anime or drama. So, as I study the language in the episodes, I feel it will come out in the book as well. And I will also understand the context more because of it.

    • I do think that it’s much better to read manga at a level that you’re comfortable with than to read novels at a level where you’re getting lost and frustrated. They were really good for me when I was at an intermediate level.

      I do think that light novels are easier on average than mainstream adult novels, but that’s not universally true. For example, the Suzumiya Haruhi series actually uses a lot of uncommon vocabulary and long sentences with twisty grammar. Other light novel series have a lot of technical science fiction vocabulary or made-up fantasy vocabulary. So I think you have to look at specific authors and specific series, not just light novels or shousetsu as a general group.

      I haven’t read the Kino no Tabi books in detail, but just looking through a few of the pages it seems like they’re not too bad. A few rarer kanji with furigana, a little science fiction vocabulary, but not too bad. And I think studying the episodes alongside the novels is a good plan!

      • I wonder how hard the Bakemonogatari series will be? The reason I decided to start learning Japanese (besides the fact that I finally got a smartphone) was because I wanted to read those novels (… plus the odd visual novel). I know it’s full of puns, but the fact that it’s having anime of it run (and the existence of some translations) will likely help.

    • I just finished the first volume of Kino, starting on the second soon. Very atmospheric, interesting characters, … well, much like the anime :) can’t recommend it enough. And yes having seen the anime helped me follow the stories, not that they’re particularly difficult.

  4. Thanks a lot for the guide. I’ve been willing to try reading Japanese books for quite some time now but didn’t know what to choose (that’s something I’m having trouble with even in my own language or English) so I’ve been waiting patiently for this guide!

    I would have a more practical question though: where do you guys buy your books? I’m in the UK and I don’t know of any Japanese book store or website that delivers in the UK for reasonable shipping cost. I know YesAsia, Amazon.co.jp, etc. but they all end up costing more than double the price of the book in shipping cost.
    Anyone?

    • Right now I’m crossing my fingers that Amazon or another e-reader company will make the kind of deals with mainstream publishers that they have in the U.S. and I’ll be able to buy books digitally and not have to deal with shipping costs!

      Now I live in New York and I can just shop at Kinokuniya, but before that I used to do bulk orders from bk1 and ship them via SAL, which takes a long time but is not that expensive. But doesn’t YesAsia have free international shipping? Yes, the price of the book takes into account the cost of shipping, but it looks like the price of a bunko volume is about what I’d pay at Kinokuniya. (Keep in mind that the yen is super high right now so prices for international consumers are more expensive.) You will probably have to run the numbers on bk1 versus YesAsia, but I think they’ll come out around the same.

      • Actually, running the numbers, I do think you’ll save about 15% buying from bk1 with slow shipping.

        I tend not to think that Japanese books are very expensive because I can pay $10 for an English book that I can read in three hours or $12 for a Japanese book that I take twelve hours to read. Much better value. :D

      • Hi!
        Thank you for your answer :)
        YesAsia should have free international shipping indeed.
        One book of the 君が見つける物語 series ends up at 6+ GBP though, so double the price of the original 500 JPY. But I guess there’s no way around it. I will have a look at bk1 (that I didn’t know) and see if I can get better prices but for simplicity I might choose YesAsia in the end.
        Thanks!

    • Generally not. Amazon has been pursuing deals with Japanese publishers, but so far nothing’s come of it although I’ve heard rumors that something will be announced before July of this year. Even if that happens, though, we don’t know what kind of region-locking/DRM will be in place.

      • Yeah I figured. If Amazon can’t do it, maybe White Rabbit could make a impact on the digital book world and make an app that will that. Another note there is an iPad app that is a manga about an American husband and Japanese wife that can be read both in English and Japanese. Only bummer is that you can’t remove the furigana from the Japanese. But it is funny and interesting to read.

  5. Really interesting suggestion! I actually bought a book from the 君が見つける物語 series. If only The Reading World recommendations could get extended.

  6. I just wanted to bring up, books by 角川つばさ文庫 with that green border have all furigana and have some pictures and character bios. Often you can find books that are written for a general audience in both this form and the typical adult-level reading form which has very few furigana. Take for instance おおかみこどもの雨と雪 (http://www.amazon.co.jp/dp/4046312483). I used this book to break into reading, and it worked well. After that I was reading normal adult-level books, but it helped break the ice for me. Loving manga myself, I also loved the pictures, which I wish came with the adult-level books too. I bought the version of ももへの手紙 that didn’t have pictures or furigana, just because the other one was out of stock, but even though I could handle it without the furigana, would have loved to got the other instead one for the illustrations.

  7. As a Japanese-language student stepping into literature, I have found short stories to be a good start–to bridge the manga-to-books transition. Hoshi Shinichi (星新一) is a fun and famous writer to start with!

  8. kitchen and delivery service are the only two books I’ve ever finished haha (not including manga).

  9. The Movie 魔女の宅急便 is actually based on the book, is it not? Or is this a different version for younger kids?

    I also reviewed this book over at my website, and am trying to build a database of good books for Japanese learners. I would be flattered if you gave it a look. I’m also looking for critical feedback. heh

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