The review is for the novel 夏の庭(なつのにわ)・The Friends by 湯本 香樹実(ゆもと かずみ). This is her first and most popular most novel.
I will give a quick over view on the story line, but my main focus in this review is accessing the book as a language learning tool. I want to share my experience of reading the book and share with others what I feel the approximate level is and who this book is suited for.
Before I start, I just want to say that I think this would be a great first novel for any intermediate Japanese learner.
Why did I pick this book?
I was recently inspired to finally pick up and read this book thanks to a recommendation from someone on the Japanese book based social media platform, Bookmeter. Before I started reading a novel, I was reading a different one that turned out to be a hard read for me due to cultural references and random topic changes. I decided that I needed a break and asked online for novel recommendations. I have recently discovered that I tend to gravitate more to books that are set outside with descriptions that are more nature based. I just haven’t really been into reading passages describing Tokyo. I used to work there and didn’t really find it a visually appealing city. I was pretty excited when this book was recommended to me as I already had it on my book shelf! I do not remember my reasoning for buying this book, but I am really glad that I had it. I used to pick books at random to purchased based off of the cover or books that stood out to me based off of the amount of times I have seen them in prominent areas of libraries and bookstores.
I used to be worried about having too many books as I wasn’t really making use of them, but now that I am unable to get new books easily due to COVID, I am extremely happy that I have a small library of books waiting to be read.
I loved this story! It is a rare Young adult novel that is both easy to read for language learners and has an interesting plot. The story has everything from childhood adventures, dark and mature topics, and true friendship.
This is the story of 3 Japanese school children and their summer vacation before 6th grade. The start of their adventure was the funeral of a family member. They began discussing death in general and became hooked on the idea of seeing a dead body. They decided that the best way to do this was to basically stalk an elderly neighbor as they figured that he was probability going to die soon anyways. They started following him around the neighborhood and hanging out by behind a wall that was near his window. They soon formed a friendship with the elderly neighbor and his house turned into the groups main hangout spot. I fell in love with the writing style of this book and think that I would have stayed interested in this book no matter where the plot ended up going. While I have never been a school aged boy, I just get the feeling that ゆもと かずみ was able to capture the experience in words quite well. I used to teach Japanese children and the energy I felt from these pages was the same feeling I got when playing with my students.
Just to give some background to my current level, I have been using Japanese for a long time now. But I wouldn’t say that I have been studying Japanese for a long time. When I moved to Japan, I would consider that the start of my daily usage of Japanese. I was not a very good student and preferred hanging out with friends. I would say that I have actively studied Japanese for around 2 years. I recently decided somewhat recently to be more serious about gaining fluent literacy. This also came around the same time as a life change which lead to me needing to have JLPT certification for my career.
This year I have finished reviewing over JLPT N2 materials and have started on N1. I plan to take N2 in December 2020 if it ends up being held. I plan on taking N1 in July 2021. I have been using the 新完全マスター series for my JLPT studies.
My experience reading this book
I started reading this book as soon as it was recommended and found it to be a very comfortable read. Usually my reading style for language learning leans to the intensive side of things, which means for me that I like to take the time to look up every unfamiliar words and create flashcards based off of them. But due to the authors words choices, I found that I did not even feel the need to use a dictionary at my current level and was able to enjoy a more causal reading experience. I also started reading this as the weather warmed up, allowing me to read it outside and get out of the house. I really enjoy reading at cafes, but due to COVID I haven’t been able to and really enjoyed using this book as a reason to go find some shade outside and sit down for a while.
This book is labels as being ‘Youth Literature’ so I think that many Japanese language learners won’t find this book to be a challenging read.
Vocabulary Level : N2 Students
As someone who has completed my study of N2 vocabulary, I found this book to be an easy read. While there very a few words that I was not familiar with, they were so few and far between that I did not feel the need to pick up a dictionary. After completing the book, for the sake of this review I did go back and search for some words to look up. Based off of jisho.org, the words that I looked up were all considered N1 vocabulary.
There was very little niche vocabulary used in this book, so all of the words are great for general language use. Off the top of my head, I think the names of flowers were discussed in some parts of the book. But its wasn’t often and the specific flowers named did not seem to have metaphorical meaning so knowing what the actual flowers looked like did not seem important to the story.
There was very little furigana in this book, which makes it a good book to exercise how well you know the readings for different kanji. The only time I remember seeing furigana was the first time characters where being introduced, and maybe for a rare word once in a while.
Grammar Level : N2 Students
Within this book, N2 grammar seemed to have been used often. The grammar is this book kinda makes me pause while thinking about whether it would be a good fit for someone who is N3 or not. While I do not think it would be the best match for someone who is N3, if they feel really attracted to the idea of this book they shouldn’t struggle too much. I would recommend this book to someone who is working on their N2 grammar studies and looking for a good way to help review and absorb the grammar points that they have recently learned.
The book’s dialog is written in standard Japanese for the vast majority of the book. Towards the end, there is one character who speaks in a different dialect and tells the boys a ghost story. This can be difficult for some readers who have not been exposed to different dialects before. But it is only for a few pages and might present only a small issue in an overall relatively easy to understand novel.
Based off of the plot of this book, I do not think you need to have a great amount of knowledge of Japanese culture in order to understand the story or the characters motivations. I don’t remember any references to exact locations or cultural figures. The only historical reference in the book was war, but again it honest mention any specific war based cultural events where the author expects the reader to know before hand.
I think this book is extremely values in introducing elements of Japanese culture to the read. It is a good book to learn more about what childhood in Japan looks like. I am American and find that my childhood was very different. Other people who grew up in car based societies might be surprised by the independence of the children in this book. They are basically allowed to spend the day doing what they want, but at the same time are expected to fulfill responsibilities such as attending study school and self studying materials that they need to know for their next year of school. I have spoken to Japanese friends about their childhood experience and it seems like the environment created in this book is fairly accurate.
One cultural element that you can learn from this story is about how funerals in Japan are held. I think that if I were to explain Japanese funerals after events to an American, many would be extremely shocked at their cultural practices. Once the body is cremated, those who were close to the deceased gather to look at what remains of the body. A tool that appears to look like large chop sticks are used to examine bones found in the remains for those gathered to look at.
Length : Short
This book is 218 pages long making it a very compact book. I think its a good book to be able to carry around and is a nice short length for beginners or those looking for a causal read.
Who should read this book?
Based off of the grammar and vocabulary level, I think that this book would be perfect for someone who is at N1 or N2 level and wanted a relaxing reading experience. At N2, it would be the perfect level for being able to enjoy this up without feeling the need to use the supportive materials such as a dictionary. While I do love books that introduce me to new vocabulary terms, it is nice to be able to read a book with having the distraction of creating SRS cards. Its a good book to have on the go, enjoy reading outside, or use as practice for increasing ones reading speed.
Story wise, I have heard this book compared to Stephen King’s ‘Stand by Me.’ This would be a good book for those who enjoy children adventure stories that have an adult like writing style.
It does look like there has been a movie made based off of this book in 1994. I watched the movie trailer online, but I didn’t really feel inspired to watch the whole movie. I did like looking at all of the fashion in the clips tho! Recently I have been moving away from watching movies that are based of books that I have read or that I would like to read. But I did find it very useful when I started out reading novels in Japanese. I think the movie can be a good resource for those would like like to know the story line before reading the book for language practice.
I have read two books so far by 湯本 香樹実, 夏の庭 and ポプラの秋. I found both books to be at a similar reading level, with ポプラの秋 having more slight higher level of vocabulary and more onomatopoeia usage. They both had similar themes of children forming inter-generational friendships where both parties go through great personal growth as a result of the relationship.