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.
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: ☆☆
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: ☆☆
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?