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, order from a menu at that cool-looking sushi joint—you need to be able to read.
Let’s be honest, though, textbook reading can be dry and dull. It’s harder to read Japanese than many other languages because of kanji (the complex written Japanese characters) and that means learners can easily become disheartened.
Finding resources in Japanese can also be quite overwhelming, especially for beginners.
This article will offer some enticing suggestions that will leave you eager to curl up with a good (Japanese) book.
How to Find Suitable Material
If a book is too easy you’ll soon become bored, too difficult and frustration will destroy your motivation. But finding a good book 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 their 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 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 Short Stories?
- They’re enjoyable. 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!
5 Great Ways to Find 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. I’m going to talk about JLPT levels, and you can take a practice test to find out your approximate level here from N5 (easiest) to N1 (toughest).
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. I’m even going to 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!
There are several online platforms designed to help Japanese learners get to grips with reading.
- Kindle — Kindles can be wonderful tools for learning Japanese. This Reddit thread 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.
- White Rabbit Japan — This site 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. White Rabbit makes some Japanese Graded Reader iPad apps that are really good and include audio and vocabulary lists.
They’re reasonably priced, they have native audio and furigana (the hiragana or katakana readings of the kanji printed above the kanji) is included, so you can practice listening or even shadow the story to get more bang for your buck. These apps are currently unavailable on other devices, but if you have an iPad, I would definitely recommend them.
- Aozora Bunko — 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.
- Satori Reader — The recently launched website 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 is mostly articles, so not short stories, but it’s definitely a good place to practice non-fiction reading.
- Wasabi — 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 for 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 in with One of These Wonderful Collections or Series
- There are several series designed for Japanese learners, the most famous of which is the series 「レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー 」 (れべるべつ にほんご たどく らいぶらりー ) “The Japanese Graded Extensive Reading Library.” 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. You can read more about this series here.
- The Extensive Reading Society of Japan also released their own series of graded readers entitled 「にほんご多読ブックス」 (にほんご たどく ぶっくす) , “Taishukan Japanese Readers.” These are also sold in sets, there are eight volumes, 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, they’re available through White Rabbit.
- Difficulty level descriptions for both Japanese Graded Readers and the Taishukan Japanese Readers are very similar—use this guide to help you figure out your level. Read Your Level is also a great website to check out with a long list of books each with an easiness score.
- KC clip has released 「KCよむよむ」シリーズ (けーしー よむよむ しりーず), a 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.
- Dan Borstein has recently released his Reajer series of bilingual Japanese short stories. This resource gives you inexpensive, easy access to a wide range of texts. The books are also available on iBooks. These ebooks are divided into three levels: easy, regular and challenging.
You can get a free sample on the Reajer website to see if these books might suit you. They’re designed to be read using the 多読 (たどく) extensive reading approach, which I referenced above. They’re suitable for all levels, as the texts are all from the original unedited Japanese and include famous Japanese authors such as Akutagawa Ryunosuke and Natsume Soseki.
- There’s also a great series of books called 「5分後に意外な結末」 (ごふんごに いがいな けつまつ) “Five Minute Tales with Unexpected Endings” which I absolutely love, 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.
- “Japanese Short Stories for Beginners: 8 Thrilling and Captivating Japanese Stories to Expand Your Vocabulary and Learn Japanese While Having Fun” is suitable for beginners (JLPT N5-N4) and is available on Kindle.
- 「星新一 ショートショートセレクション」 (ほし しんいち しょーとしょーと せれくしょん) “Hoshi Shinichi Short Short Selection.” Hoshi Shinichi, a very prolific author, famous for stories that are just a few pages long. Check out his Amazon page here. 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
Short stories about animals
- Nekomaki is a simple manga, which isn’t overly heavy on text about some incredibly lazy cats. There are two volumes, you can buy both volume one and volume two on Kindle, the first volume is even free! The kanji doesn’t have furigana, but as there isn’t so much text reading should be quite easy going for intermediate learners.
- 「手袋を買いに」 (てぶくろを かいに) “Going to Buy Gloves” is a Kindle book written in all hiragana that should be easy 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.
- 100万回生きたねこ」(ひゃくまんかい いきた ねこ), “The Cat that Lived A Million Times” is a tale of reincarnation and attaining enlightenment and an understanding of identity through experience. (ISBN-13: 978-4061272743)
- “The Treasury of Japanese Folktales: Bilingual English and Japanese Edition” is a beautifully illustrated book that will allow even beginners to learn about Japanese traditional culture and values through folktales.
Ghosts and the paranormal
Japan has a long and rich tradition of spooky stories. Personally, I find reading anything suspenseful motivates me to read more, so I gravitate towards 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 works 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” is a collection of thirteen stories of 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.”
This 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.
- “Yuki Onna” is 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, “Scary Stories for Children” seems like a solid choice and is available outside of Japan.
- Intermediate or advanced learners may find Natsume Soseki’s “Ten Nights of Dreams” 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 in his most famous works, 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 Poe in Japanese, both famed for their short stories and available cheaply on Kindle or through Aozora Bunko.
Mysteries and detective stories
- 「少年探偵ブラウン」 (しょうねん たんてい ぶらうん) “Encyclopedia Brown” is fun 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.
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.
- 「ふわふわ」 “Fluffy” is a children’s book. If you love his stories, but would like to learn more before getting into his books written for adults, then this could be perfect for you!
- He published a book only available in Japanese called 「若い読者のための短編小説案内 (わかい どくしゃの ための たんぺん しょうせつ あんない) “Short Stories for Young Readers.” This book is aimed at older teenagers and would be suitable for high intermediate learners looking for engaging, well-written content.
- If you like J.D Salinger or Truman Capote, as well as Murakami, you may also enjoy the Japanese translations of their works he made. 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.
- A book about the 1995 Kobe earthquake, titled 「神の子どもたちはみな踊る」(かみの こどもたちは みな おどる) “All God’s Children Are Dancing” in Japanese, 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.
- 「象の消滅」(ぞうの しょうめつ) “The Elephant Vanishes” contains 17 short stories, originally published in magazines. The stories reflect Murakami’s typical theme of loneliness, loss and surrealism.
- 「めくらやなぎと眠る女」 (めくらやなぎと ねむる おんな) “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” is Murakami’s compilation of short stories and contains 24 stories, gathered from magazines and other publications.
- His latest collection, 「女のいない男たち」(おんなのいない おとこたち) “Men without Women,” has just been released in English this year, 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. Her complete works can be purchased in Japanese through Kindle.
- 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. Especially recommended are 「蛙」 (かえる) “Frog” and 「絵本」 (えほん) “Picture Book,” both of which are very short and suitable for readers around JLPT N3 level.
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.
- 「どでかいワニの話」 (どでかい わにの はなし) “The Enormous Crocodile” is the tale of the greediest crocodile in the river and 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.
- 「こちらゆかいな窓ふき会社」(こちら ゆかいな まどふきがいしゃ) “The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me” 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.
- 「魔法のゆび」(まほうの ゆび) “The Magic Finger” is 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. If you’re aiming high and want to tackle “The Trial or The Castle,” then why not warm up with “A Hunger Artist” (on Kindle or Aozora Bunko) or “Metamorphosis” (also on Kindle or on Aozora Bunko)?
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 something you love and increase your Japanese reading collection!
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