Japanese Novel Review: Penguin Highway by Tomihiko Morimi

I just want to say that I think this would be a great first novel for any beginner or intermediate Japanese learner.

Why did I pick this book?

Sometimes I lurk on the subreddit ‘LearningJapanese’ for inspiration and to find different media or resources that are out there. I saw that Penguin Highway was recommended as a great beginner novel, I looked into the author more and realized that I have other novels by him and decided to purchase it.

I didn’t really look too much into the story line before buying it, but I was interested in it mainly because it was labeled as a SciFi novel. I used to enjoy that genre when I was younger, and the idea of reading a science fiction novel in Japanese aimed for adults seemed a bit intimidating so I thought this would be a good place to start.

Story Overview

This story is written in a first person journal-like style of the life of 4th grader Aoyama who is very interested in science and likes to research many different topics on his quest of being the perfect adult. He takes his research very seriously and has a note book that he is constantly writing down his findings and experiments in. He lives in a normal town that starts to see a strange problem, the appearance of penguins in random places. In the beginning of the book, it seems like everyone in the town basically just accepts the issue and are not too concerned about looking into where these penguins came form. Aoyama becomes fixated on these penguins and begins a research project to find out where they are coming from. He starts to look deeper into it and tries to keep it a secret, but was unable to hide his project for long. He enlists the help of some of his classmates to get to the bottom of what is going on. Not everyone supports Aoyama and his research. Through out the story line there appear to be groups of people who step in and try to prevent Aoyama from completing his mission.

Level Preface

I just want to give some background to my current level so you can better understand where I am coming from while I try to recommend books based off JLPT level. I have been using Japanese for a long time now, but just decided somewhat recently to be more serious about gaining fluent literacy. I wasn’t a very serious student of Japanese and was just using it and enjoying Japanese media as opposed to studying. I have recently decided to take the JLPT and have finished reviewing over N2 materials and have started on N1 my N1 studies. I am currently planning on taking N2 this year in December, and then N1 in the summer of next year. This is the fourth Japanese book that I have read until completion.

My experience reading this book:

While I found this book to be an easy read and good reading practice, I didn’t really enjoy the story or the writing style. This is definitely a children’s book. I think that some language learners look for that in a book, but for me personally I have a hard time getting into most children’s book story lines. This book also feels like it was written with the goal turning it into an anime in mind and had lots of fan service in it. Aoyama is constantly thinking about breast to the point of obsession. While I do enjoy some animated movies, not the biggest fan of this kind of this type of anime culture.

The main character, Aoyama, seems fairly detached and doesn’t really seem to understand the emotions and motives of the people around him. I think due to this personality trait of Aoyama combined with the first person writing perceptive leaves all of the characters of this book feeling one dimensional. This made it a bit hard for me to get invested in the story line or any of the characters in this book. And while I believe that there is great value in inter-generational friendships, I was a bit disturbed by the amount of time he was spending with the name-less girl who seemed to be in her 20’s or 30’s.

During the climax of the plot, I had a bit of a difficult time picturing what was going on based off of the description. This is possibly due to my language level, but it just seemed like I could not imagine what the setting looked like at all. I did watch clips of the movie after I finished the book just to get a better idea of what happened.

On a positive note, this book does have one major thing that I look for in a story as a language learner. I find that when the main character is someone young who is either in a new environment or is in the process of learning about the world around them, that the other characters in the story tend to explain things to the main character in an easy to understand way. I think this kind of story telling situation is good for language learners since we don’t automatically know the Japanese culture and mindset.

The edition that I read was the Kadakawa Bunko(角川文庫). In this edition, there was no furigana next to the kanji to provide the readings for vocabulary words.

Vocabulary Level : N3 Student

The vocabulary in this book is a solid N3. Someone who has finished their N3 vocab study should find that they know more then enough words to get by in reading this book. There may be some words to look up, but its not an overwhelming amount. I think that it might even be okay for those who like to use an extensive reading style, as I think students should be able to get most of the meaning even with skipping over words that they do not know. But I think a lot of learners will be inspired to use a dictionary for words due to the word repeat factor. The author tends to introduce different words in a way that explains its meaning, and then proceeds to repeatedly use these words in the story. I think this that this fact makes Penguin Highway a great book for learning or reinforcing vocabulary.

There isn’t a lot of furigana present in this book. That paired with the use of simple vocabulary again makes this book great practice as the readings aren’t given to you automatically and it gives you a chance to drill new readings into your memory with repeated word appearances.

Names of characters are written in katakana, which does make it really easy to keep track of who is who. But you won’t get practice reading Japanese family names in kanji.

I used to think that N3 wasn’t enough to enjoy a Japanese novel. But this book proved me wrong. I think that someone who is at a level N3 would be able to read this book and be able to get through it quite easily with light dictionary use. N2 should find this book an easy read and maybe a nice break from more challenging novels.

For those who would like furigana while reading this book, I would suggest that you purchase the Kadokawa Tsubasa Bunko (角川つばさ文庫) edition of this book. Usually with Kadokawa Tsubasa Bunko books, the text inside is the same and the main difference is the addition of furigana. I wrote a post explaining more about Kadokawa Tsubasa Bunko books here.

Grammar Level : N3 Student

Again, I used to think that there might not be any novels that were at a N3 level grammar wise. But this book proved to me that my previous opinion was based off of ignorance of the topic. There are books for N3 level and this is one of them. The grammar patterns used in this book are quite simple and straight forward.

Cultural References

I do not think that you need to have any deep knowledge of Japanese culture to understand the story line of this book. There are no references to Japanese cities, music, or media. In Morimi’s description of the town that Aoyama lives in, I didn’t really get a strong feeling that the setting was in Japan until the summer festival. I think that it would be helpful to be somewhat familiar with Anime culture, so you don’t get thrown off by how often breasts are discussed and described in this book.

I am not sure if reading this book will help to lead the leader to a deeper understanding of Japanese culture overall, which I think is very important knowledge needed to be able to use the Japanese language well.

Length: Medium

At 383 pages, this isn’t a short book. But with most Japanese paperback books, its fairly compact in size overall. While the length might be intimating to beginners, I think that length can be seen as a positive for language learners who are trying to use their money effectively. A longer book is usually around the same price as a shorter one but with more study material.

Who should read this book?

N3 level students who are anime fans and looking for a good beginner book.

I think that level N4 students who really enjoyed the movie/story line would find the Kadokawa Tsubasa Bunko (角川つばさ文庫) edition of this book a good and rewarding challenge.

There are many different animated movies and series that have been novelized into book form. I think its worth looking into if you are a big fan of any movie or series. I do own a few such as Your Name(君の名は) and Weathering with You (天気の子). I personally do not like this type book. They tend to be word for word the same as the anime without adding any depth or details to the story.

But I do think there are any language learners who can take advantage of this set up to feel advance their comfort with reading as they would already know all of the details in the book if they have seen the movie first. With this in mind, I think it isa great choice for those who are just getting started with reading Japanese novels.

Author: Kuri

I love reading Japanese novels and have seen that many people want to read them but don't know where to start. I have decided to share my experiences to help people reach their literacy goals.

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