Wanted: YA Novels in Japanese
August 30, 2011 7:01 AM   Subscribe

Recommendations for Japanese books to practice reading (in Japanese)?

I have been studying Japanese for a while (I have a tutor, but she's not trained to be a teacher, so I need to handle most of the pedagogical problems, which is weird but I cope) , with progress being slower than I like, but fairly steady.

I have clawed my way into middle school reading levels -- I have a fair amount of grammar; I can puzzle out most YA-level sentences; and I am slowly building my grammar. I have read a bunch of kids' books (notably the Kitsune no kagiya) series, which have grown a little childish for me. Finding sustained narratives at my current reading level is difficult -- stuff for middle school readers that I have picked up seems to be crammed with slang and dialect, so I get a couple of chapters in and can't find half the words in my dictionary.

So, can you recommend any YA novels (in Japanese) that might be worth trying? Books with furigana are preferred but not absolutely necessary. Adventure novels would probably be the most fun, but I am willing to try almost anything. I am dubious about the value of manga for my purposes, but you might convince me. I can get to a Kinokuniya a couple times a year, but recommendations of online vendors would also be welcome.
posted by GenjiandProust to Education (16 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Read Real Japanese was recommended to me, though sadly it's a bit beyond my level. There's a collection of essays and a collection of short fiction. The format is the Japanese text on one page, with explanations of difficult vocabulary and idioms on the facing page. If you're up for Y.A., you might be able to read these.

I know what you're going through. I'd like to think I'm at a level where I could really make improvements in my Japanese by reading, but there's very little reading material (textbooks and whatnot) for learners of Japanese, and the jump from 'everything in hiragana' children's books to 'dear lord, what happened to the furigana?' kanji heavy books is quite profound.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:19 AM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

GenjiandProust, I don't know whether this fits or not, but I read through the Japanese translation of the first Harry Potter book, and I think it was about the level you're talking about. I had trouble a bit at the start, but I stuck with it and my reading improved tremendously during the course of it. I personally don't love Harry Potter, and got a bit bored of it by the end (actually in some sort of fit of stubbornness I stopped reading it about six pages from the end and haven't yet picked it up again...ha), but I was able to manage it and basically knew what was going on even in the parts where I was feeling pretty sketchy about the words. There is some furigana but not a ton—basically it's there for the less common words the translator used, especially those with non-jouyou-kanji.

The good thing about it (which I've found true for all Japanese books I've read actually) is that certain vocabulary figured pretty prominently, and that really fixes it in your mind...for example, I'll never ever forget the words 魔法, 魔法使い, or 魔法女 now, and I think the translator used 飛び出す in every other paragraph at least once. It's amazing how much those Harry Potter characters are constantly 飛び出す-ing.

Ahem. Anyways, I have been in the same boat you've been in so I'm also super interested in the results of this thread. I would really love to have a progressive reading list for Japanese. Hmm...maybe we should start one...

Oh, on preview, commenting on what Ghidorah was mentioning—yeah the "Read Real Japanese" series is good, but frankly I think it's a bit misguided conceptually—it has furigana, and copious notes by the translators, but frankly it's pretty tiresome to go back and forth from the notes to reading, and in my opinion it's just not a satisfying reading experience. And the stories/essays are written for adults by real Japanese authors—I mean, it's straight up Japanese reading material. But when I'm reading I just want to read and figure out words from context, and I will skim over stuff here and there if I know what the kanji mean and I know generally what is going on. If a book is too hard for me to do that, then I skip it.

So this series is a bit weird because, while I want to read these stories, I don't want to read them like that. I'll wait until I've got the context and try them again, in their "native form." However, the nice thing about those books is that they have CDs of the stories read out loud by a professional actor, a woman with a lovely voice—I have listened to those over and over and it has probably helped my listening comprehension more than anything, and in that sense the series has been great.
posted by dubitable at 7:34 AM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm learning Japanese too, and this amazing post at this forum sounds like something you'd be very interested in.

On an easier level, there's this site with mukashi-banashis translated to English (whose Japanese versions are also available).
posted by Senza Volto at 8:15 AM on August 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

I remember Banana Yoshimoto novels being easy and entertaining to read. I particularly liked "Tsugumi", which is also a 1990 movie.

For me, however, reading manga was pretty key, especially 人間交差点 (Ningen Kosaten, or "Human Scramble", which features a lot of Carver-esque short stories).

Looking at my bookshelf, I also read books about subjects that I was interested in, which may help you out. In my case, I read mostly books about local (Fukui and Hokuriku) history and folklore, geography, and Buddhism, for example.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:39 AM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy Toshokan Sensō, a light novel series set in a future Japan where librarians literally have to fight as soldiers to protect people's access to books and information.
posted by needled at 9:08 AM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

I haven't read the Kitsune no Kagiya books, but browsing through them on Amazon it looks like they're targeted towards 2nd-4th graders, so then if books for middle-schoolers are still inaccessible books for 4th-6th graders might work. Perhaps look into the 青い鳥文庫 line, which is right at about that level and has a lot of books to choose from. They're all paperback and all have a good amount of kanji with furigana, and you'll be able to find a lot of them at Kinokuniya.

Start with the trial reading section, which has a dozen pages from several of the books free to read online, and see if they're about at your reading level. There are two different categories, books at mid-grade school level and up and books at high-grade school level and up, so perhaps one level or the other will be more to your liking.

For deciding what books you actually might like to buy, there's that trial reading page, which also has links at the bottom of the page to a lot of the popular series. A lot of them seem pretty fluffy, but I suppose those are also the ones that might provide more slang, and it seems like there's a fair dose of adventure stories. (I'm actually waiting for a package containing some time travel mystery stories from this line. I mean, can I resist 清少納言は名探偵 (Sei Shōnagon, Great Detective)? No, I can not.) There's also the book search page, with links to famous Japanese works, famous works from around the world, non-fiction and biographies -- maybe not so good for the slang but decidedly less fluffy.

The Seattle Kinokuniya has a whole shelf of these, so I assume yours does too, and you'd also be able to order them through their online store. If you have a friend in Japan who wouldn't mind shipping books to you, they're often dead cheap used, too.

I write a blog about extensive reading (多読, or tadoku, in Japanese) which may be of interest to you. I'm just starting to read at this level comfortably, so there's not a whole lot about books at this level just yet, but there's information about buying books online, online reading material and so on.

As my tadoku friends say, happy reading!
posted by shirobara at 9:27 AM on August 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

I read stories by 星新一 when I was trying to get more reading practice. The short stories in particular are relatively easy but tricksy, in a PK Dick-ian sort of way.

Otherwise I've picked up a series called IQ 探偵ムー, which is a collection of medium-long stories.

I personally think that manga can be pretty useful for reading. There's quite a bit of dialog and slang, but it will expose you to all sorts of words, and the pictures do give you a little more leeway where you might not otherwise understand things. A series like もやしもん would probably be a challenge but would teach you a bunch of new words if you happen to be into bacteria and fungi.
posted by that girl at 9:34 AM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Kemono no Souja books by UEHASHI Nahoko -- a fantasy story about a girl whose mother is a caretaker for war-dragons, and after a war-dragon dies the mother is punished with death and the girl runs away. They're fantasy but not crammed with a ton of made-up words, and they're actually very well-written and well supplied with furigana -- reading level is somewhere around 6th grade, I'd think.

Keritai Senaka by WATAYA Risa is published as an adult books but it's about middle-schoolers and I never found the vocabulary difficult. It's also one of my very favorite Japanese novels, and it's quite short.
posted by Jeanne at 9:40 AM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I was in a similar position, I ended up reading the OnePiece manga - they seemed to introduce new characters who had their own grammatical styles and vocab on a regular basis, which kept it interesting. The story itself was sometimes interesting too, although quite simplistic.

I had previously tried shaman king, but found it a bit heavy on complicated mythology and light on simple sentences. Similarly with inuyasha.

One Piece was especially interesting because it taught me the reading of モ with diacritical marks - scrunching up your face and shouting from the back of your nose! Oh, it also had puns which I could understand which was very satisfying.
posted by fizban at 9:48 AM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

You could also try Global Voices Online. They usually summarize blog posts, so you could read the English gloss first, and then dive into the original Japanese blog post. This is helpful because the GVO summary provides useful context.

Not exactly sure if this is where you are yet, but the way I jumped from a high basic reading ability to intermediate was by reading the newspaper. I would make a list of key vocab words from the article (that I didn't know), and then I would watch the news at night (the same news stories).

Now it's really easy to do - just read the Asahi, Mainich, or Yomi online (both English and Japanese) and catch the embedded YT news reports from Google News.

Of course, this has to be combined with a study program of intermediate kanji, grammar patterns, and idiom.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:15 AM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not exactly sure if this is where you are yet, but the way I jumped from a high basic reading ability to intermediate was by reading the newspaper.

I should say this was 11 years ago, before Japanese news content was available online. I still have binders full of newspaper articles and notes at my mother-in-law's place in Tsuruga.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:16 AM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hmmm. My problem with manga is that the sentences tend to be short and there is very little scene-setting (because of the pictures). They also seem to be slang-heavy and (in the case of SF/fantasy) full of made-up words. I like manga, but I wonder whether it will help me read things like novels.

Newspapers and magazines are somewhat useful, and I look at them a bit, but many lack the furigana, which are really useful to me (I am kind of amazed at the number of readings I've crammed into my brain, but it's not anywhere near enough yet), and I am really interested in building up my reading endurance for long-form narratives.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:21 AM on August 30, 2011

Newspapers and magazines are somewhat useful, and I look at them a bit, but many lack the furigana,

Are you aware of the Rikai-chan plugin for FF, and the Rikai-kun plugin for Chrome?

Both of these act as a combo dictionary with furigana.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:41 AM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding thatgirl on 星新一 's short stories. Although the kanji level is going to be higher and require dictionary time, the sentences are straightforward and the stories rarely longer than 10-15 pages (on the small Japanese book format). If you finish one and the world doesn't seem a bitter place where the nice guy finishes last, you know you need to go reread the last bit for the twist in the ending. (For the non-Japanese readers: Hoshi Shinichi). I started with ボッコちゃん.
posted by whatzit at 12:08 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have two Kodansha editions of The Finn Family Moomintroll: one in English, and one in Japanese. My intention was always to read the Japanese version, while referring to the English copy for backup if necessary. (The Japanese version has plenty of furigana, too.)

As it turns out, my kanji vocabulary has sadly been getting worse since the time when I bought the books, not better, due to my own lack of dedication as a student (and also, leaving Japan). So I don't really know if my idea would have worked, but I still think it's good in theory. Maybe try something you can get in both languages.
posted by snorkmaiden at 7:04 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm probably straying away from your original question here, but the only way to memorize kanji is by rote. During the summer of 2000 I spent 10 hours a day studying kanji by endlessly copying them into workbooks and quizzing myself on the different readings. Learning to write them (and paying attention to stroke order) is integral to the process.

The good news is that after about 1000, it becomes a lot easier to remember kanji. This is because you become more familiar with the radicals and other elements, and get a better sense of the "Chinese" readings, so it's easier to quickly look up unknown characters in a dictionary.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:38 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

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