This is a review for the Japanese translation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban(ハリー・ポッターとアズカバンの囚人) by J. K. Rowling.
Harry Potter, as I am sure you know, is an extremely famous book series that has ingrained itself into American culture despite being a book from England. I think most people have heard of the series and basically everyone I know has at least a basic idea of the story and have seen a movie or two. Growing up many of my friends were reading the book series as it came out.
Due to people’s familiarity with the story line, many people seem to turn to this book as a first choice when trying to start out reading novels in a new language. I too purchased random Harry Potter books that I found at Book Off while living in Japan. Anytime I saw one for 100yen, I purchased it until I had the full collection. While I started this book many times my first year living in Japan, I never really got past the first chapter because it is a fairly difficult novel. I do not recommend this book for beginners and I will get more into my reasons below in this book review.
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.
Level Preface 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 StudentLevel
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 StudentLevel
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.
Since I have gotten my electronic dictionary, I have not been using free online resources as much as I used to. While I love my denshi jisho, I know that they can be an investment and that many beginning to intermediate to even advanced students can thrive using free material online. I have spent a lot of time researching the meanings of words online and have decided to introduce the 3 sources that I have used most often.
English-Japanese Bilingual Dictionary
Jisho.org is a dictionary that is very popular with Japanese language learners. It is very straight forward and provides one-word or short definitions along with example sentences. I have never focused on the practice sentences on this site before, but I have heard they can sometimes be unreliable.
While I would prefer to use Japanese monolingual dictionaries while looking up words, sometimes it made more sense to use an English-Japanese dictionary. I would often use bilingual dictionaries when it came to medical terms or other terms were I thought that there would be no cultural differences in the use of the term. Sure, I could look up the word ‘uterus’ and get an understandable definition, but a uterus does the same thing world wide and I found it easier just to have a one word explanation while I was creating the SRS card for this term.
When I was relaying in this dictionary, I found it to be satisfactory and usually ended my search after using this site.
I still use this dictionary sometimes when I am working on book reviews. This dictionary has a feature where it will list a JLPT level if the term happens to be associated with a certain level.
I no longer use this dictionary for purely looking up definitions, as I prefer the Kenkyuusha dictionary on my electronic dictionary.
Japanese Monolingual dictionary
Honestly, I was never able to find one free monolingual Japanese dictionary that satisfied me. Weblio.jp came somewhat close. But it was not close enough for me to use it as my go to dictionary. I usually had to shop around on a few different sites before I found that perfect explanation that really resonated with me.
I would usually type the term into a search engine followed by the word meaning in Japanese. For example “戦慄 意味”. From there I would open up a few links and read a definitions until I was able to find an entry that suited me. Out of all of the free dictionaries out there, I think I ended up using Weblio.jp the most.
Japanese Monolingual Dictionary
Now this dictionary is something special.
It will not have all of the words that you are looking for, but when it does happen to have that specific word it has a wealth of information that will help you to understand every facet of the word. It will introduce you to the different nuances connected to the word, explain the different ways you can use it, and give you examples. Every time I have been able to use this dictionary, I felt satisfied and like I really understood its true meaning.
This is a review of the novel The Witch of the West is Dead(西の魔女が死んだ) by Kaho Nashiki(梨木香歩). This is a young adult novel that really high lights that fact that juvenile fiction isn’t always easier then regular novels from the language learners perceptive. I do not recommend that this be any language learners first book.
I bought this book while I was visiting my partner’s parents in Osaka at Book-Off. I have seen the book a few times and the very easy to read title and cute cover stuck out to me. It was only 100yen so I decided just to pick it up and opened it up for the first time this year. I was inspired to read this story due to the fact that a Japanese blogger I watch often mentioned it as being one of her favorite books.
Sorry if this review is a bit hard to follow, but besides Mai, none of her family members were actually named. They were just referred to by the narrator as their role like ‘mom’ or ‘dad.’
This novel starts with the death of Mai’s grandmother and is a reflection of the month or so that Mai stayed with her out in the country side of Japan. While Mai doesn’t really go into many details with her family, she makes the announcement that she no longer wants to attend school. This really worried her mother, as she was basically raising Mai alone while her husband lived in a city far away for work. Unsure of what to do, she ended up having Mai stay with her own mother who lived about an hour away. Mai’s grandmother is a British women who lived her whole adult life in Japan and eventually ended up living alone in the middle of no where after the death of her husband.
Mai loves her grandmother and is happy to be able to escape her school situation. As Mai slowly gets used to her surroundings, her grandmother starts working on having Mai feeling accepted and slowly work on building life skills to help her succeed in life. Mai’s grandmother told her about the family history and how witchcraft runs in the family. Mai was excited to start her ‘witch training,’only to be somewhat disappointed by the fact that it entailed chores and going to bed early. Mai’s grandmother claimed that the first step to being a witch is having a strong control over oneself and ones actions.
There is also a short story included in the end called Wandering Through a Day(渡りの一日) which describes a day in the life of Mai and a friend that she made at school names Shouko. The feeling in this story is much more mature then it was in The Witch of the West is Dead. The vocabulary is at a much higher level as well. Mai had specific plans with Shouko to attempt to see a group of migrating birds pass by. But Shouko had secret plans of her own and Mai reluctantly goes along with them.
The author did a great job at describing some of the feelings that a 13 year old girl experiences. I remember the feeling of being uncomfortable often and I also referred to the feeling as being home sick even though it happened when I was at home as well. I never really talked to anyone about that feeling before and was really surprised to see it written in this book. While my personal story is much different then Mai’s, I was able to related to her feelings and it made me reflect on my junior high days.
This is over all kind of like cheesy feel-good story that you would expect from a Hallmark movie. This is more of a comfort read then anything else. While there is a lot of personal growth in the main character Mai, the plot is very basic and predictable. There are elements to this story that I really like tho. I do not think that this is a story for everyone. I’ll get more into the parts that I like to help you find if this book is right for you.
My experience reading the book
This is a fairly short book and I was able to read it over 2 days. The formatting of this book had lots of spacing in between characters and line of text making it very easy to read. There were lots of words that I was unfamiliar with. But my recent style has been to not focus on the exact meaning of words. I just look up the reading, and gather the meaning slowly through context. Sadly there were lots of names of trees and plants that I was unable to picture. But I am planning on learning more about plants when I move to Japan and am not in a hurry.
I love nature and learning about nature based words in Japanese. But I did find the vocabulary in this book more changeling then Miura’s 神去なあなあ日常. The trees and flowers mentioned in The Witch of the West is Dead(西の魔女が死んだ) were not used often enough to have them stick in my head. Also the descriptions were not vivid enough for me to be able to truly picture what each plant looked like.
As a non-Japanese person who has lived within Japanese culture, the way that the grandmother was portrayed as a large impact on me.
So I am just going to leave this here in Japanese as it is something that I have only felt in Japanese if that makes sense. I don’t want to pretend like I understand the experience of being a minority in America and that makes me pause before explaining myself in English. I am still getting used to sharing on the type of blog format so I am hoping I can grow to be more expressive and open in my writing in the future.
The writing style in this kind of what I would refer to as ‘The Beauty of everyday life.’ This story goes into great details of the small things in life such as chores, cleaning, and other daily actions. For example, in the beginning of the story when Mai and her mother arrive at Grandma’s house, the author goes into great detail about the sandwich that the three make together. Each action, down to putting butter on the bread and picking the leafy vegetable to add to the sandwich are described. I think the passage lasts around lasts around 4 pages long. There are equally long passages describing Mai and her grandmother making strawberry jam and doing the laundry together.
I think it really depends on the individual, but I recently have started to really enjoy this type of writing style. I was recently taking about this style of media with a coworker. She was more interested in sounds and images. But the basic idea is slowing down and seeing the small pleasures that might be missed other wise. Like the sound of ice gently being dropped into a glass and the smoothness of water being poured over it. With each description in this novel, I am easily able to hear the sounds of each action.
I have a fast paced job with a lot of responsibility. I think this has really influenced how I want to spend my free time and what I need to relax and recharge. ‘The beauty of the everyday’ really helps to change my mindset on my days off. Its reminds me that is is okay to take things slow and just be. I find that while reading these types of books that the tension that I have been holding in my body from work suddenly melt away.
Vocabulary – JLPT N1-N2 student level
For context, I am a self-assessed JLPT level 2. Sadly I will not be able to confirm my level this year as there are no near by JLPT tests this year due to COVID. I plan on just skipping N2 and taking N1 next summer in Japan or Canada.
For the most part, I did not find myself using a dictionary during this story. I did look up the readings for different words, but a lot of the new words I saw were easy to guess from context. There are some onomatopoeia used in this story which again, are very easy to gather the meaning from context clues. Most of the words that I did not know come from the vocabulary groups below.
Specialized Vocabulary Groups – rocks, plants, types of trees, flowers, and normal edible plants that you would find in a Japanese garden
I did not spend anytime looking up these types of vocabulary. There was just too many names that I did not know. Mai’s grandmother even goes out of her way to teach Mai different names of plants and quizzes her later on to see if she remembers them. Mai’s grandfather was very interested in rocks and had a huge collection, this is where the names of minerals comes in. While I do want to learn more about trees and plants in general, I am going to wait until I am back in Japan. Many parks have name plates next to various plants to help you know the name and I think that will be an easier way for me to learn
For some of the more rare words used in this story, there will be furigana to help you get the meaning. The names of characters in this story are not introduced with furigana which can make it difficult to know the exact reading. This is only an issue in the second story as there are no kanji based names in The Witch of the West is Dead(西の魔女が死んだ).
The vocabulary gets more difficult in the second story, Wandering Through a Day(渡りの一日). I did find myself using a dictionary for this one.
Grammar – JLPT N3-N2 student level
The grammar used in this book was fairly straight forward and not at all literary. For a third person style story, it is fairly dialog heavy making some of the sections of the book really easy to read. Since the plot in this book is very simple and straight forward, I do not thing that grammar will cause readings to get lost of have any misunderstandings.
The grammar does feel more complex in the second story, Wandering Through a Day(渡りの一日). While the plot in this story is more random, I think vocabulary would cause more issues to readers then grammar.
This book is 221 pages long and contains two stories. The first story, The Witch of the West is Dead(西の魔女が死んだ) has 193 pages. The second story, Wandering Through a Day(渡りの一日), is 26 pages long.
I think that it might surprised some people, but it is not uncommon for Japanese children to stop going to school. While I had seen this in Japanese media and was familiar with the idea, I was shocked when I found out that one of my close friends missed a year of school! She said that she was being bullied in grade school and just decided that she did not want to go anymore. Her parents let her stay home and she was not home schooled. She was just free to spend her time as she wished. Even with that, her grade school gave her a graduation certificate and she worked up the courage to return to education and start junior high.
It seems like Japanese students are just pushed through the system sometimes regardless of their grades or attendance.
I have recently ordered this book as I was looking for something to read by Harada Maha(原田マハ) as they seem to be a fairly popular author in Japan. Based off reviews that I have read, We are Alive(生きる僕ら) seems to have a similar plot and setting to The Witch of the West is Dead(西の魔女が死んだ). In this book, Twenty-four year-old Jinsei Akira is working on over coming personal weaknesses that has left him unable to leave the house. He works up the courage to finally step foot outside and starts on his journey of looking for his grandmother who lives in the country side of Japan. This book seems to go into great detail of the life style of the characters and I am looking forward to learning more about farming in general.
And of course I would like to recommend my favorite Japanese series, Little Forest(リトル・フォレスト). In this series that is focused on country living and slow cooking, the main character moves back to her home town after years of being desperate to leave. I love the music, quietness, and nature based color scheme of this short series.
Here are a few thoughts that I have about reading in general and some tips to make it easier for language learners to start reading or to find new books to read. I think these ideas can apply to any language. So if Japanese is not your target language, please just replace that word with your language of choice when reading this article.
1. In general, first person stories are a great place to start
There are first person books that have flowery descriptions and straight forward third person books. BUT in general, first person books have more dialog and breaks between descriptions which will make for an easier read. It will also give you more use able words to remember for everyday life.
2. Look up words that you do not know in the first two chapters
A lot of authors tend to repeat words tied to themes that the story touches on. Even if they don’t purposefully reuse words, there will be words tired to the environment and the story line that will pop up again and again as the story progresses. Reading intensively(i.e. looking up every word) can be tiring and burn you out. But if you put a bit of work into the beginning of the book, the later chapters will be much easier to read extensively(i.e. read for pleasure).
3. Do not pick books based off of authors, their difficulty level can vary greatly
Once you find a book that you love, its tempting to want to buy everything else the author has written. But in my experience, there is usually not a consistent difficultly level for each author. Some of their books may be more literary then others. If possible, try to find place online where you can see the first few pages to get a feel for it.
For example, I heard that Gen Hoshino(星野源 )’s novel Working Man(働く男) was a good choice for beginners. I picked up the books by the same author titled And so life goes on(そして生活はつづく) and found that I had difficulties to understanding the humor in the book due to not having enough familiarity with the cultural references to people who were/are famous in Japan.
4. Have a few books around you to choose from
The more books that I have, the more likely I am to read. Sometimes I am just not in the mood for a particular type of story and having the freedom to choose from my small library make reading easier and more enjoyable.
If you really love a book despite of its difficulty level, its nice having other books as well so you can take a break with something easier to read once in a while.
5. Interest is more important then ease
If the book is boring, there isn’t going to be much that you can take away from it. Of course there are ways to change ones mind set to make stories interesting. But if that doesn’t work, its time to give up and find something new. The first book that I read to completion in Japanese had so many words that I didn’t know. They were specialized vocabulary that had to do with nature and forestry. It took a lot of time to look up each word, but I really loved it! It was way better and more educational then boring easy books that I gave up on. But again, some books are more difficult then others and its okay to just put them on your to read list and pick from easier choices that you are interested in.
Anyways, you do not have to start with children’s books or graded readers if you do not want to. Thinking about reading in Japanese is harder then actually reading in Japanese.
6. Try to stick with novels that were written in Japanese
This is something that I feel pretty strongly about. In order to be able to use the Japanese language well, you need to understand the culture. Every novel you read that was written for Japanese people in Japanese by a Japanese person has an insanely high value as a cultural education tool. If it is true that reading fiction increases empathy, just imagine how well you will start to understand the Japanese cultural mindset if you immerse yourself in Japanese novels. I find that my understanding of Japanese culture levels up with each book that I read.
While it can be a great start to read stories that you know well, maybe try to pick Japanese stories that you are familiar with in your native language. Sure, Harry Potter will help teach you kanji, but I feel like as a reader you might be missing out so much by not investing your time into Japanese stories.
7. Watch Japanese Media for 10-30 minutes before reading
I find that this tip helps me out with almost everything Japanese related. If I watch Japanese TV before speaking in Japanese, my speech is better! If I watch Japanese TV before studying, studying becomes easier! Basically I find that even just watching a short youtube clips gets my mind into the Japanese mind set. Even just a few minutes makes a huge difference. Think of it as a warm up before exercising.
8. Start small
Finishing a complete book is a great feeling, especially in the beginning. Its much easier to finish a book if it is shorter. It may seem obvious, but I don’t think it is always on peoples mind when they are picking out novels. For example, I think a lot of people like to start out with books like Harry Potter… and those books are huge! There are lots of shorter books out there. I think starting small will help learners feel less overwhelmed and more accomplished.
9. If the book review is easy to understand, there is a good chance that the book is easy to understand
This is still an idea that I am exploring, but I have been finding it to be true for me. If you look on a peer review site such as bookmeter, the more literary the book, the more literary the review. I am finding that there is a correlation between how easy I find the reviews are to read and how easy the book is for me to read. Of course when you are driving into new topics or genres there will be vocabulary challenge, but I still think there might be some truth in this idea.
10. Only read novels if you want to
There are lots of different reading materials out there. If you like manga better, then read that! Having an enjoyable experience is the most important part. There are blogs, new sites, subtitles on TV shows… so many options out there.
If you are not a fan of book in general, then you don’t have to force yourself to pick one up in the name of reading.
This is a review for the novel Child of the Stars(星の子) by Imamura Natsuko(今村 夏子). Imamura is a well renowned author who has won an impressive amount of literary awards. Child of the Stars won the Noma Literary Prize in 2017 as well as being nominated for the Book Sellers Award in 2018. I looked at this book every single time I walked into Kinokuniya, but never got around to reading it until just now. I purchased the book on Amazon JP’s online store for 654 yen.
The story starts out with the main character, a young girl named Chihiro Hayashi, reflecting on the impact that she had on her family as an infant. Chihiro was a very difficult baby which caused her family a lot of stress. She had a skin condition which made her very uncomfortable in pretty much all situations and caused her to cry often. Her family quickly became overwhelmed and despite as nothing the doctors suggested seemed to help Chihiro. One day when Chihiro’s dad was explaining the situation to a coworker, Mr. Ochiai. Ochiai had a seemingly weird solution to Chihiro’s problems. He stated that water at the Hayashi was bad, gave the father a few bottles of special water, and gave detailed instructions on how and when to bath Chihiro.
The family had already decided that they would try out anything, no matter how strange it seemed, to help Chihiro find comfort. They bathed her exactly as instructed and started seeing results right away! She started crying less and her skin color was improving. The family rejoiced and became true believers of the power of this special water. They became very close with the Ochiai family and started joining the gatherings and adopting the groups habits and rituals. Chihiro was so young when this started happening that she saw everything as normal. But other family members were not as welcoming to the changes. Chihiro’s older sister and her uncle made a plan to show the parents that they were being scammed, but the parent’s beliefs were just to strong. It caused a large rift in the family. Chihiro’s parents completely departed themselves from their extended family and her older sister ran away. Extended family members do what they can to support Chihiro and try to help her leave, but she supports her parents so much that she had a hard time parting.
As Chihiro gets older, she becomes more and more aware of the differences between her family and the seemingly normal people around her. She starts to make friends outside of the religion and lose faith in those fellow believers that she used to so close to. After becoming unable to look at anyone in the face, with the help of a classmate she was able to start relating to others and getting crush after crush on different boys she sees around her. A big catalysis in Chihiro’s life is when her crush and teacher mistook her parents as strange and dangerous people when he spotted them in the park while dropping Chihiro off after school.
My experience reading this book:
I think that Child of the Stars is the most entertaining Japanese novel that I have read so far. There were some scenes in the book that had me laughing and I had a fun time reading this book.
I think one of my favorite scenes was when Chihiro became unable to look anyone in the face after she developed a crush on an actor. Everyone just seemed so ugly to her, she was unable to even look at her own face in the mirror. Her father gave her some huge purple glasses that he got from the religious catalog, but the glasses seemed to have no effect on her. What did help her was becoming close a classmate who was able to make the situation into a game. Chihiro started to get better relating to those around her and was able to get over her ‘eye illness.’
I am kind of disappointed in myself that it took me so long to purchase this novel. There were so many times that I saw it on a shelf at Kinokuniya and thought about picking it up. I am so happy that I finally did.
The ending is very much in the style of Japanese story telling. I have heard from many western raised learners that some find it hard to feel satisfied with this type of ending. Don’t expect a solid ending, just treat it like a slice of life story and enjoy the short ride in Chihiro’s life.
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 really want to recommend this as a great book for students who have a strong grasp of N3 level materials. While there is some more advanced vocabulary sprinkled through out the book, it is not an excessive amount.
There were times were I saw a word that I was not able to guess from context alone, but each time the word was explained by someone or the reading was spelled out in the next line. For example 免疫力 was brought up in a classroom setting and the teacher asked for one of the students to explain the meaning.
Like I mentioned, there are a few random and more advanced vocabulary words used in this book, but there is no specific vocabulary group that sticks out to me. I think almost all of the words fall under general everyday use.
This novel does not provide furigana for the names of characters as they are introduced in the story.
Grammar: N3 student level
This book is written from the first person perspective of a young girl and I think the grammar used in the book really reflects this. The book starts when Chihiro is in grade school and she speaks in a fairly simple way. Even as she ages in the book, the grammar still stayed fairly simple. I think that a N3 level student would not find the grammar in this book as a barrier to understanding.
The book is very dialog heavy and this too helps with keeping the prose of the book easy to understand. This can help students who want to collect phrases to use when speaking in Japanese. The dialog is written in causal form for the most part. Sometimes their will be light polite form used, but overall its all extremely basic grammar. There are no flowery descriptions in the book and it feels like a really straight forward read.
I think this novel is very accessible to language learners regardless of their familiarity with Japanese cultural. In fact, people from other countries might feel like they relate more to the characters in the book as being a member of a religious organization in Japan is not very common. I really related to some of the unique difficulties of becoming close to someone who deeply practices their faith. In the beginning, it would be so easy in the friendship to either ignore or accept the differences in beliefs. But when both parties start to open up, it can be difficult when the types of advice each person offers for situations differ greatly. Like in the case with Chihiro’s uncle. He was really worried and scared for his sister and wanted to protect them from what he saw as a scam. He slowly tried to accept the differences as he realized how much the beliefs meant to the family, but it became difficult when the family offers religious advice and items from the religious group’s shopping catalog as solutions to any problem the uncle has. Since the family felt so strongly about the value of what they are getting from the religion, its only natural for them to want those close to them to join as well. Boundaries start to blur and it can be difficult to maintain relationships.
When I lived in Japan, every time religion was mentioned it had a negative connotation. When I was an international student, there was a whole lecture dedicated to warning students against joining a religion. There were even photos of past teachers who were fired due to the fact that they tried to bring students to church. There are lots of small religions in Japan that are very active in recruiting new members. The school said that exchange students and those who are new to Japan in general are very vulnerable to falling prey to these types of groups as they offer support and people who are in a new living situation who are unfamiliar with Japanese cultural norms might be unable to identify the dangers. In the end, I was never approached by a Japanese person who wanted to offer me spiritual guidance. But I was approached many times by people from western religions. There seemed to be a strong community of Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses where I lived in Japan.
When I was reading over reviews for this novel, it seemed like a lot of reviewers felt really bad for Chihiro. But as someone who was raised in a fairly religious family, I didn’t have any feels of pity towards her. I just found parts of her story that I really related to. It made me reflect back on my own process of growing up and progressively questioning the values my parents held. But I understand that the experience of being raised in a religion must be much different in Japan then compared to America.
And as with most novels written about younger people, you will get a better idea of what a typical Japanese school experience would entail. I think that this is really important in being able to understand a very basic area of Japanese life that almost all Japanese people have experienced. Its a great talking point as many people seem interested in comparing education between countries and seeing what the differences are.
Who should read this book?
I think this novel could be a great first choice for those who have never read a full novel in Japanese before. I think it would be great for someone who is finished with N3 level studies and getting started with N2.
I do not recommend this to people who are religious, as the characters in the story aren’t very nice about religions in general.
At 227 pages, this is not a long novel. It is very dialog heavy, and I think this book has less words then the average novel of the same length due to the conversation style between the characters. There are some parts of the book where pages of only half full due to long conversations taking place.
The length is another reason why I think this novel would make a great first novel for beginners. Its falls in the sweet spot of being worth buying and being easy to finish. Being outside of Japan, I have a hard time buying books under 200 pages as I don’t want to invest my money in something that I will finish too quickly. I spent around 4 days reading this novel.
This book is being turned into a movie that will be released on 10/09/2020. Based off of the trailer it seems very loyal to the books story line. Even though I LOVED this novel, I do not have any plans to see the movie. The trailer kinda falls flat for me. But I think that pairing up movies and novels is a great way for beginner readers to have the confidence to dive into Japanese literature.
The Girl in the Purple Skirt (むらさきのスカートの女) is currently Imamura Natsuko’s most well known novel. This is the novel that got Imamura Natsuko the Akutagawa Prize (芥川龍之介賞) in 2019. This novel is written from the view point of the narrator is is obsessed with and often observes a women who is referred to as ‘The Girl in the Purple Skirt’. I really love the idea of reading a story about this type of relationship. Its like the people who ride the same bus as to me work. They are strangers who are somewhat apart of my life. Luckily I am not obsessed with any of my fellow riders, but I am looking forward to reading this book in the future. I have recently read another book based off obsession, Mitsuyo Kakuta’s What is Love(愛はなんだ) so I am in no hurry to read another stalker book. The fact that The Girl in the Purple Skirt is only 160 pages long makes me pause a bit as I wonder if it is worth buying a book that I will finish so quickly. This one may have to wait until I move back to Japan and have access to libraries.
I found this book for free on yomeruba.com. I saw from a post on reddit that this website has been doing campaigns where they have a monthly selection of novels that can be read for free. I decided to read this novel to see if it would be a good choice for beginner students. This is my first time reading a Japanese novel online. I really prefer paper based novels as I love everything related to trees in general. But I really wanted to seek out more beginner reading materials and I am interested in find free materials online to help me with my budget. There are some more expensive hardcover books that I am interested in, but my current budget would only allow me one paperback book per week.
Ive heard of this book series before, but basically it is a collection of short stories with the same theme. Each story is broken up into sections that would take a Junior High School level Japanese student around a few minutes to read. I think that this format would work well for language learners as well! It is nice that it basically tells the reader a good place to stop. While the description might make it seem like its the same thing as chapters in a normal novel, the timing of these breaks is more consistent.
I was inspired to write this blog by Peregrinja’s post over on her blog, The Blog of a Reiwan Lady, on her own habit of collecting novels but in Japan and back home.
I am sure that for most people reading this blog, Tsundoku(積読) is a word that you have seen before. Its basically the habit of collection books but not actuality reading them. The word implies that the book collector had originally planned on, or still does plan on reading the vast amount of books that they have managed to collect.
When I was younger, I was an avid reader in my native language and would read non-stop no matter where I was. My parents really supported my hobby and got my as many books as I wanted. While I had an extremely large collection of books, they were all books that I had read cover to cover and I never really got into the habit of letting books sit around unread. That changed when I moved to Japan. I started feeling guilty about reading books in my native language when I felt that I should have been using that time to focus on my Japanese. This lead to me putting a pause on reading for pleasure for quite a long time.
So I randomly saw the movie based off of Mitsuyo Kakuta(角田 光代)’s What is Love (愛はなんだ) and fell in love with the atmosphere of the movie. I have never took an interest in directors before and usually know nothing about them, but for the first time I can say that I am a fan of director and his name is Imaizumi Rikiya(今泉力哉)!
I started watching other movies he has created and found them equally as enjoyable.
I didn’t even realize that What is Love was based off a book until I saw Inhae’s review on it over on her blog, Inside that Japanese Book. I looked more into the author Mitsuyo Kakuta(角田 光代) and she seemed really interesting and has written some award winning stuff so I decided to buy the novel at Kinokuniya’s USA online store for $8.99.
Romantic Horror seems to be the best way to describe this type of story.
This is the story of Teruko Yamada and her process of slowly destroying her life over her obsession with Mamoru Tanaka. Since the day she met him at a friends party, she started to lose touch with everything else. Anything unrelated to Mamoru was put in the ‘I don’t care pile’ and left to rot away. Her work performance started to suffer. The coworkers that she used to get along with grew distant as she stopped answering phone calls and started coming into work late. But that was okay with Teruko! She and Mamoru were doing great from her point of view. They weren’t official, but they were hanging out, having fun, and she knew things were going somewhere. He even suggested that she quit her job so that means he was thinking about marriage, right? She started to live the house wife life and take care of all of Mamoru’s needs. Until he started to feel overwhelmed with Teruko and started to pull away.
On my mission to read one Japanese novel per week, I have decided buy some books! A few weeks ago I made an order on Kinokuniya’s USA online store and wrote about my experiences here. There were a lot of things that I liked about Kinokuniya, but there were so many books that I wanted that were out of stock. So I decided to place an order on amazon.co.jp as well since they did have copies of all of the novels I have been wanting to read lately.
My shopping goals
I’ve given myself a yearly budget of $500 dollars to spend on Japanese novels as that would equal roughly about one book a week where I live. I made the goal of staying later at work to make extra cash to pay for this budget and I have succeed already! We are very understaffed so it did not take very long. I am really happy that I don’t have to worry about spending so much money on novels as I am now able to shop happily while reaching my savings goals as well.