I had a hard time deciding whether to review this novel or not. Yoshimoto’s Kitchen is famous in both Japanese and English. It is often recommended for beginners and is the go to recommendation for those who are looking to get into the world of Japanese novels. I reread the book, took some notes, and really thought about whether or not I would be able to add anything of value to the discussion on this book. Then it hit me, while I love this novel, I do not think that this is a good book for beginners. I will get more into why I think so in my review below as well as offer some alternative suggestions for those looking for a good first book.
Why did I pick this book?
I got this book when I was still living in Japan. I purchased it at a used book store for around 100 yen. I basically just picked it up due to the fact that it was the most recommended novel to me as a beginner.
In Kitchen, Mikage Sakurai lost her parents at a young age and was raised by her grandparents. As her family slowly started to get smaller and smaller, she felt an underlying stress of living with her elderly grandmother. It was always in the back of her head that her grandmother could pass away at any moment. She felt a tension anytime she came home or woke up in the morning… would her grandmother still be there? This feeling continued until the day finally came, she had no family left. She started spending all of her time in the kitchen, even placing her bed by the refrigerator as it was a room that brought her great comfort. She knew she wouldn’t be able to afford the rent for such a large home by herself and started to slowly look at where to live next. After the funeral there was a knock at the door, it was a boy who went to the same university as her. Yuichi Tanabe worked at a near by florist and became very close to her flower-loving grandmother. He invited her to live with him and his mother while she figured out what steps to take next in life.
Yoshimoto has a way with words that makes everyday sounds and situations seem so romantic in a nostalgic way. She truly is able to bring out the beauty of everyday life and point out the same details that people tend to feel deeply about once they lose someone close to them.
I really try to take away good points from some of the characters from the books that I have been reading. I really admire how Mikake was able to dedicate herself to cooking to the point were she was able to make it her career. Right now I have a really good feeling about writing book reviews and am convinced it will lead to something good. I want to absorb some of the energy that Mikake was able to put into her cooking and do the same for my reading and writing.
My experience reading this book
If I had to pick one word to describe this book, its warmth. Every time I open this book I feel like I am soaking in a bathtub or hot spring somewhere. I have never had an author become such a comfort to me before. Reading this book now even after a few months of focused reading was a different experience. I felt it more deeply then I did the first time I read it. This is a book that is worth waiting for. While it would not be a waste to read it as a first book, I just don’t think you will truly get what it is all about.
I now think I understand the reason behind why I would quit this book a few pages in when I was a beginner. Emotional books take a certain type of energy from readers. As I attempted to read this early on in my Japanese journey, all of my energy was used up by the fact that I was doing something new, which was reading a book in another language. I didn’t really have the energy to keep up the slow, tender, emotional level of this novel. While it is not technology difficult, I think plot based stories are easier to read for beginners. Now I find this novel an extremely easy comfort read. This was my second time reading this novel. The reading experience was extremely smooth. I took some time to look up a few words to confirm readings, but overall Yoshimoto’s word choice makes this book an easy to understand story.
One major difference when I read books in Japanese as opposed to English is that I have an inner dialog reading through the story. In English, I read much too fast to have one, but I try to take my time in Japanese to absorb more of the language. I have noticed recently that when I read Japanese books written by women, that the inner dialog is much smoother then when I read novels written by men. I’ll will have to do more reflection on why this might be the case. In English, I feel like there is less of an overall difference between feminine and masculine language use then when compared with Japanese. This might be something to look for as a language learner if you are trying to match your Japanese language style with your gender. Again I will have to do some more thinking about it, but my spoken and written Japanese is fairly feminine and I wonder if that makes a difference my reading experience.
Just to give some background to my current level. I have been using Japanese for a long time now, but just decided somewhat recently to be more serious about gaining fluent literacy. This year I have finished reviewing over JLPT N2 materials and have started on N1. I am planning on taking N1 in July 2020. I mainly use the Kanzen Master series for my JLPT focused studies.
Vocabulary: N2 – N3 Student Level
As with all books written for native speakers, no JLPT level for really match the words used in a book. But I think that an N3 level student would not find this novel too difficult. N2 students who have read a book or two before should find this novel to be an easy read.
I did find the vocabulary used in the first story, Kitchen, to be slightly easier then in the second story, Moonlight Shadow.
The vocabulary repetition factor in this book is medium level. While there are a few words that will appear often, I do not think that Yoshimoto repeats terms as much as other authors do.
This book does not provide the readings for the character’s names. Its always a big disappoint for me when I see this in a book. I find that it can be hard to find the exact reading for names as the readings can vary. There is very little furigana in this book in general, but student should be familiar with a lot of the words that she uses.
If there is a specialized vocabulary group in this book, it is emotions.
Grammar: N3 Student Level
The sentence structures used in this book are the definition of unpretentious. This is a very accessible book for people of all reading levels.
While the words and grammar that Yoshimoto uses are quiet simple, as mentioned before I think the theme of the story can make it hard for first time readers to keep track of what is going on. This book is pure emotion and deals with heavy topics such as loss and grief.
There are no modern pop culture references in this book. Nor does understanding the plot depend on culture knowledge such as location. The entry barrier to this book is very low.
One thing that sticks out to me is that I want to mention that in my experience in Japan, it is rare to offer one’s home to someone you are unrelated to. So I think what happened in this in novel is a true act of kindness in Japan that goes above and beyond the kind of condolences that one would offer an acquaintance who is grieving.
During my childhood in America, it was extremely common to stay over at other people’s houses. Sleep overs are a real thing over here. As a child, I would often find myself staying the night at a friend’s family home. Sometimes even once a week or more. It would often just be me staying and playing with one friend but sometimes there would be up to 10 children staying over at one time for special occasions such as birthday parties or New Years Eve. Staying over at friends houses happened often as I got older as well. It was a staple activity during high school. When I was growing up, my brother’s friend lived in my family home for almost a year. I also had a boyfriend during high school that lived in my family home for a few months as well. I have seen this theme of children living at their friend’s home reflected in America media, so I do not think what I experienced in my home community would be considered unique.
American apartments and houses tend to be much larger then Japanese houses, meaning there is more room for more people. There is also a culture of entertaining guests in one’s home, which is vastly different from the Japanese habit of going out and meeting with friends outside of their homes. I am not sure if it is everywhere in America has this type of culture or what it is like in other countries, but I just want to clarify that Japan does not have this culture.
While I was living in Japan, I did not go to the homes of Japanese people very often. There was maybe one Japanese friend whose family invited me over often for diner, but that was it. I did spend time in people’s apartments, but those were all the home’s of friends who grew up in different cultures. Japanese friends did stay over at my apartment often, but those were friends who had extensive international experiences. I hosted parties in my tiny apartment that would end up filled with 10-15 people of mixed nationalities. I even lived with my best friend’s family for a short time, but again that friend’s father was American. Knowing and experiencing Japanese culture first hand gave me the view point of how to appropriate the pure kindness and openness that was extended to the main character.
Who should read this book?
Those who are looking for a easy comfort read. This book will not be an exciting read for those who life fast paced plots. This is a novel focused more on interpersonal relationships, emotions, and grief.
I often hear this book being recommend to people who have never read a book in Japanese before, but I cannot say that I agree with this advice. While Yoshimoto Banana does have a straight forward writing style, the emotional nature of this book might lead first time readers feeling lost at times. I recommend that learners pick a more solid, plot based book to read at first. Of course interest is more important then ease, and if you find yourself drawn towards this book, please get it regardless of what I just said.
The book itself is only 193 pages long. The first story Kitchen(キッチン) is 142 pages long. The second story Moonlight Shadow(ムーンライト・シャドウ) is 48 pages long.
Alternative Suggestions for a first novel
While I am still have only read a small range of novels in Japanese so far, I think I can offer some better alternatives for a first novel. Again, I think that novels that feature a more plot based story line would be easier to follow then an emotion based story like Kitchen. Click on each title to see a full review for each book.
This novel would be perfect for a N3 level student! The word choice and grammar is quite simple. It is written in the first person perspective of a grade school student, Aoyama. This story is easy to read and the plot line is easy to follow. All of the vocabulary introduced is good for everyday use. There is also an animated movie based off of this book that is very loyal to the book’s story line. All of the characters names are written in Hiragana, which makes it easy to keep track of who is who for beginner level students.
A good choice for a first book for N3 students. While this book is a bit dry, it is an extremely famous story line that almost all Japanese people would be familiar with. Maybe different forms of media have been based off of this story as well. In this novel, 3 stories of a similar easy to read level are included. It is plot based and easy to follow. While there are some sci-fi based words in the final story, for the most part all of the vocabulary is good for general use and easy to understand.
This is a great book for those at a N3 or N4 level. It is perfect for those who are looking for a story with less kanji. While the fact that a lot of the words are written in hiragana can make it difficult for beginners to tell the difference between vocabulary and grammar, the vocabulary repeat value of this books means that it will get easier as the story goes on. While it is written in third person, I think the semi-formal writing style will be greatly welcomed by those who are using textbooks to learn Japanese.
And this is just from the few books that I have read so far. As I read more, I think I will have even better choices to recommend to beginning readers. Even novels like コンビニ人間 would be a better choice for those at a N2 level. Once COVID slows down, I am excited about the reopening of the near by local university. They have Japanese as a major area of study. I have been emailing a professor lately who works at the school and teaches a class on extensive reading in Japanese. She has introduced to me to some of the novels that they have in the library that she brought with beginners in mind. I cannot wait to check out the library and read some of those novels and write reviews to help other pick out the right book for them.