Your dream’s come true, you’re finally in Japan!
You’re surrounded by the busy Tokyo nightlife and a sea of neon signs.
If only you could read them.
In order to enjoy hanging out in manga (Japanese comic) cafes, make plans to meet native speaking friends online, find that izakaya (bar) you’ve read about tucked away in a side street or order from a menu at that cool-looking sushi joint—you need to be able to read Japanese.
Let’s be honest, though, Japanese textbook reading can be dull and difficult, and finding other reading resources in Japanese can be overwhelming, especially for beginners. All these things mean that learners can easily become disheartened.
That’s what makes Japanese short stories so perfect: They’re authentic, bite-sized and fun to read.
This article will offer some enticing easy Japanese short story suggestions and point you to a few places where you can find them.
It will leave you eager to curl up with a good (Japanese) book!
How to Find Good Easy Japanese Short Stories
If a story is too easy, you’ll soon become bored; too difficult and frustration will destroy your motivation. But finding a good story for your level can be difficult.
Here’s how it works:
- When you look at a Japanese book, choose a random page and try to read it.
- If there’s one new word or less, the text is too easy for you and you won’t learn much.
- Two to three new words on a page means the text should be an appropriate level for you to read and be able to enjoy.
- Four new words will be a challenge, but if you’re feeling ambitious, go for it.
- Five or more new words per page means the book is beyond your current level and will be too difficult to read.
This system was designed for use with 多読 (たどく ) — tadoku (extensive reading), where the following rules are applied when reading graded readers:
- Start from scratch.
- Don’t use a dictionary.
- Skip over difficult words, phrases and passages.
- When the going gets (too) tough, quit reading and pick up a new book.
For the learner, this means less interruptions and more inferring word meanings, as children do when learning to read in their native language.
I love tadoku. The speed and ease with which I can complete each page really motivates me. There’s even a tadoku contest held several times a year.
What’s So Great About Japanese Short Stories?
Reading is such a great way to learn. It puts you in charge and allows you to work at a pace that suits you. It’s almost one of the most enjoyable and relaxing ways to learn.
Short stories are a great entry point to get you warmed up and ready to take on a novel.
Reading will open up your world.
Because of kanji, reading in Japanese is a skill which might require more attention than if you were studying a language with a Roman alphabet.
However, reading will reward you with access to a whole world of exciting Japanese culture.
You’ll hit multiple skills at one time.
Reading will aid you in consolidating kanji, vocabulary, learning natural word choice and seeing grammar used in context.
Short stories are especially good, as they enable you to pick up speed. So you’ll see improvement in your overall reading ability.
There are so many options.
Luckily, after growing tired of reading books for small children, with a bit of searching I found there’s a whole world of great reading material out there and you don’t have to stick to just children’s stories. There are biographies, mysteries, folklore and a lot more.
Everyone will find something they like!
How to Use This List of Easy Japanese Short Stories
What’s easy for a learner who is strong at kanji and vocabulary may not be for someone with the same amount of time learning Japanese under their belt. In this list, I mention JLPT levels.
You can take a practice test to find out your approximate level here from N5 (easiest) to N1 (toughest).
Read Your Level is also a great website to check out with a long list of books, each with an easiness score.
You don’t need to take the test to read these books, it’s just that terms like “intermediate” can be quite vague and JLPT levels are standardized.
Although the focus here is on easy Japanese short stories, I will also try to suggest some short stories for advanced learners. There are so many wonderful short stories that are more challenging out there, it’d be a real shame to skip over them!
If you find yourself struggling, remember the “Five Finger Rule” I mentioned above. And to really make the most of these stories, read actively: note down unknown words and grammar constructions, then use other resources to affix the new information in your mind.
I recommend that you pair these stories with FluentU’s videos, flashcards and adaptive quizzes to remember new information.
FluentU takes real-world Japanese videos—like music videos, movie trailers, documentaries, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn real Japanese as it’s spoken in real life.
Just take a look at the wide variety of authentic video content available in the program. Here’s a small sample:
You’ll discover tons of new Japanese vocabulary through these great clips.
Don’t worry about your skill level being an issue when it comes to understanding the language. FluentU makes native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts.
Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
You’ll see definitions, in-context usage examples and helpful illustrations. Simply tap “add” to send interesting vocabulary words to your personal vocab list for later review.
FluentU even uses a learning program which adapts to your specific needs, to turn every video into a language learning lesson and get you to actively practice your newly-learned language.
Access FluentU on the website to use it with your computer or tablet or, better yet, start learning Japanese on the go with the FluentU app!
Now you’re ready to take on some Japanese short stories. Enjoy!
5 Ways to Discover Easy Japanese Short Stories
1. Take Advantage of Online Platforms
There are several online platforms designed to help Japanese learners get to grips with reading.
Kindles can be wonderful tools for learning Japanese.
A Reddit thread on the topic explains how to add dictionaries that function to define a word as you hover over it on a Kindle, meaning that you’ll be able to get through more challenging texts with less frustration.
This site, formerly known as “White Rabbit Japan” has an online store that delivers to many countries. They have a great selection of Japanese reading material, including many of the books mentioned in this article.
OMG Japan makes some Japanese Graded Reader apps that are really good and include audio and vocabulary lists.
They’re reasonably priced, they have native audio and include furigana (the hiragana or katakana readings of the kanji printed above the kanji), so you can practice listening or even shadow the story to get more bang for your buck.
This is a huge free online library similar to Project Gutenberg. They have an English search page but you can use the Japanese one if you’re more confident with kanji.
The resource is well worth checking out. It curates level-appropriate content for you and increases with difficulty as you learn to keep challenging yourself.
The site mostly uses articles, not short stories, but it’s definitely a good place to practice non-fiction reading.
Another useful site where you’ll find some free reading materials.
Note: To find Japanese versions of physical books if you’re located outside of Japan, I recommend using ISBN numbers wherever possible. These are international and solve the problem of differentiating titles between English and Japanese publications of the same story.
You can search on Amazon Japan for the book you want, find the ISBN in the book information and then copy and paste it into your country’s Amazon page to see if they have it for sale.
This will also help you avoid accidentally buying the English version of a book you wanted in Japanese.
2. Dive into Short Story Collections and Series
There are several series designed for Japanese learners, the most famous of which is this one. The books are sold in sets of five, with an audio CD.
They have furigana throughout and are engaging, achievable short stories for Japanese learners working towards being able to read texts for native speakers.
The Extensive Reading Society of Japan also release their own series of graded readers. These are also sold in sets but you can get them individually as well. There are eight volumes and each volume contains five to seven stories and an audio CD.
They’re not available on Amazon yet, but if you want them outside of Japan, you can get them through OMG Japan (just click on the series title above).
KC clip has released this series of 25 free online books you can read on their website, designed for learners. They’re divided by difficulty using CEFR levels, but roughly speaking A1=JLPT N5, A2=JLPT N4, B1=JLPT N4/N3.
They look perfect for readers who are just starting out with reading in Japanese. They’re available under a Creative Commons license, which is incredibly helpful for teachers who need lesson materials.
I absolutely love this great series of books because the stories are intriguing and surprising, even for adult readers. There are quite a few books in this range and they’re suitable for readers between JLPT N2 and N3 level.
This collection of short stories is suitable for beginners (JLPT N5-N4) and is available on Kindle.
Hoshi Shinichi, a very prolific author, is famous for stories that are just a few pages long. Just be sure to check carefully that you’re buying the Japanese edition of a book before purchasing, as the English translations and Japanese books seem to be mixed together.
3. Pick Your Favorite Genre or Topic
What do you like to read about? We’ve grouped the easy short stories below by topic so you can find something you’ll love!
Tales about animals:
“Nekomaki” is a simple manga about some incredibly lazy cats which isn’t overly heavy on text. There are two volumes and you can buy both volumes on Kindle for under $2!
The kanji doesn’t have furigana, but since there isn’t so much text, reading should be quite approachable for intermediate learners.
This Kindle book is written in all hiragana, making it a good choice for learners who are quite new to Japanese. It’s the story of a mother fox going to buy gloves for her cub to keep it warm on a cold winter night.
A tale of reincarnation and attaining enlightenment and an understanding of identity through experience.
This beautifully illustrated book will allow even beginners to learn about traditional Japanese culture and values through folktales.
Mystery and detective stories:
“Encyclopedia Brown” is a fun book to read because the reader can work alongside the boy detective trying to solve the cases.
These stories are good for intermediate learners around JLPT N3 level.
Japan has a long and rich tradition of spooky stories. Personally, I find reading anything suspenseful motivates me to read more, so I gravitate toward mysteries and scary stories in my Japanese reading.
If you get tired of predictable stories, or prefer your reading a little on the darker side, then these may be just the thing:
「10分で読める ほんものの妖怪の話 3・4年生 」(じゅっぷんで よめる ほんものの ようかいの はなし さん・よ ねんせい) — “Read in 10 minutes: True Ghost Stories for 3rd and 4th Graders”
Get spooked by this collection of 13 stories about legendary creatures from traditional folklore, including a tale of a soul returning from the dead through your pillow as you sleep at night, “Long Legs Long Arms” and the notorious “Butt Eye.”
The book is aimed at 3rd and 4th grade elementary school students so should be a good choice for readers around JLPT N4-N3 level, and kanji are written with furigana.
Enjoy a traditional Japanese ghost story. This bilingual Japanese reader is available on Kindle and should make the story accessible, even to learners who are new to Japanese.
For another easy read on Kindle, this collection for kids seems like a solid choice and is available outside of Japan.
Intermediate or advanced learners may find Natsume Soseki’s writing, available through the Sōseki Project, especially interesting.
Lafcadio Hearn, who adopted the Japanese name Koizumi Yakumo, was born in Greece, but moved all around the world, settling in Japan in 1890.
He became fluent in Japanese and wrote down many famous Japanese stories of ghosts and the paranormal, which are both part of his complete works on Kindle.
Because easy is a subjective term, something “easy” for advanced learners with a penchant for cosmic horror might be H.P. Lovecraft or Edgar Allan Poe in Japanese, both famed for their short stories and available cheaply on Kindle or through Aozora Bunko.
4. Discover Famous Japanese Authors
Haruki Murakami is probably the most famous living Japanese author outside of Japan. His unique writing style and compelling insights into the human condition have lead to him becoming globally respected.
Because his books are so popular, many of his works are cheaply available in English, making it possible to buy both English and Japanese books and use them as parallel texts, which broadens your study options.
If you love Murakami’s stories, but would like to learn more before getting into his books written for adults, then this children’s book could be perfect for you!
Murakami also published a book only available in Japanese. This book is aimed at older teenagers and would be suitable for high intermediate learners looking for engaging, well-written content.
Search here for works associated with Murakami and you’ll find many other works he translated. Murakami also translated a collection of short stories titled “Birthday Stories,” which is available in Japanese.
Murakami wrote four main short story collections worth seeking out for those at a high intermediate or advanced level in Japanese, though since he was a prolific writer, you may find many more as your level increases and you can search online in Japanese.
This book about the 1995 Kobe earthquake contains six short stories centered around people who, while not directly affected by the physical devastation of the quake, find their lives changed in its aftermath.
A collection of 17 short stories, originally published in magazines. The stories reflect Murakami’s typical theme of loneliness, loss and surrealism.
This compilation of short stories contains 24 stories, gathered from magazines and other publications.
His latest collection has just been released in English recently, but has been out since 2014 in Japan. There are seven short stories in this volume which, as the title suggests, is about men who lose the women they love.
Akutagawa Ryunousuke’s complete works are available on Kindle. He wrote a great many short stories including classics such as 「羅生門」(らしょうもん) — “Rashomon,” 「鼻」(はな) — “The Nose” and 「蜘蛛の糸」(くもの いと) — “The Spider’s Thread”
Ichiyou Higuchi is so well respected that she appears on Japan’s 5000 yen bill. She died at the age of just 24 but wrote a number of short stories during her brief life.
As her stories were written during the Meiji era, readers should expect to encounter some more archaic Japanese, making them a good challenge to take on for more advanced readers, or those who want to progress onto reading longer classical Japanese texts in their original forms.
Natsume Soseki is one of Japan’s most well respected authors. In addition to his masterpieces 「吾輩は猫である」(わがはいは ねこ である) — “I Am a Cat” and「坊ちゃん」(ぼっちゃん) — “Botchan,” he wrote many short stories.
The wonderful website Sōseki Project has been specifically designed for Japanese learners to guide them through his works.
The site has been thoughtfully designed to include breaking texts into smaller sections, furigana and pop-up English definitions for more challenging vocabulary.
In addition, they also have every text with full furigana, a rough translation and a vocabulary list on their study guide pages, plus PDFs and MP3 audio files of every story.
These stories are suitable for intermediate learners around JLPT N2 level, though because of the careful design of the site, lower level learners may enjoy trying to read them, too.
Hayashi Fumiko was a feminist, a bohemian and an author. She wrote a lot of short stories, many centered around strong-willed women’s lives. You can buy her complete works on Kindle for less than a dollar or read for free on Aozora Bunko.
5. Revisit Old Favorites
Aside from bilingual starter books, translated works of authors you already love or those you find challenging in English, can be a good way to either challenge yourself or ease into reading Japanese through tackling a familiar text in a new language.
Books by Roald Dahl
Many of Roald Dahl’s children’s stories have been translated. Depending on your kanji and vocabulary level, his easier short stories are best suited to students around JLPT N4-N3 level.
The Japanese editions still contain Quentin Blake’s wonderful illustrations and make the reading experience really fun. A definite nostalgia trip for those who grew up reading Roald Dahl.
The greediest crocodile in the river is planning his lunch. He’s got his eye on you! It’s the easiest of Dahl’s books to read and is a great short story to supplement graded readers.
This book has lots of adjectives, is easy to follow and the illustrations are so great that they elicit a lot of laughter from even the most cynical readers. Suitable for beginners, around JLPT N5-N4 level.
This is a story about Billy, who dreams of opening a sweet shop in an abandoned building.
One day he discovers a pelican, giraffe and monkey have moved into the building and have opened the Ladderless Window Cleaning Company. Billy teams up with them and adventure ensues.
Suitable for higher level beginners at around JLPT N4-N3 level.
A tale about a girl who objects to her duck-hunting neighbors. She gets so angry that she curses them with her magic finger, then things start to get rather strange.
Suitable for high beginners to intermediate learners at around JLPT N4-N3 level.
For those looking for more advanced material, authors such as Franz Kafka have a strong following in Japan.
As you can see, this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s available to read in Japanese even when you’re not in Japan!
I hope you feel inspired to find some easy Japanese short stories to add to your reading collection!
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