5 Different Ways to Discover Easy Japanese Short Stories, and Lots of Recommendations

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.

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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.

There’s a simple system called the “Five Finger Rule” designed by the Extensive Reading Foundation to help students find texts appropriate to their level.

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!

1. Take Advantage of Online Platforms

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

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.

  • 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.

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.
  • 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)

Traditional 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.

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.
  • 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

4. Discover Famous Japanese Authors

Haruki Murakami

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!

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.

Other authors

  • 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.

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.

Other favorites

  • 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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