If so, I think I know what’s wrong with you.
Yep, I’m sure of it now.
You’ve got a reader’s brain.
Or, to put it simply, you’re a compulsive literature aficionado. Like me, you relish language, rhythm and storytelling—which is why studying Japanese with a textbook or a newspaper article is so outrageously, stupendously, infuriatingly mind-numbing.
Well, I propose a change. And I think it’s one you’re going to like.
It’s time we swap those dry textbook passages for some famous Japanese short stories.
I mean, fiction isn’t just fun and games, guys—it’s a vital learning material.
But before jumping headfirst into the nearest Murakami Haruki collection, let me give you some tips on how to find the best short stories in Japanese.
Are You Ready for Short Stories in Japanese?
Unfortunately, being a bookworm alone isn’t enough. In order to read and ultimately comprehend Japanese short stories, you have to reach a certain level of Japanese proficiency. In other words, if you’re an absolute beginner, jumping into short stories, especially the most famous (read: at times complex or archaic-sounding) ones, will likely end up discouraging and disappointing you. So don’t rush into fiction if you haven’t gotten a firm grasp on your linguistic strengths and weaknesses yet.
Oh, and when it comes to writing styles, remember this: Short story prose is nothing like textbook passages or newspaper articles. Fiction is much more flowery, metaphorical and rule-defying than nonfiction, so it’s important to go into a story with minimal expectations as to how it might or should be presented.
With all of that out of the way, if you’re still positive you’re up for a Japanese short story, here are five points to consider before turning that title page:
- Hiragana, katakana and kanji. If you can fluently read hiragana and katakana, you’re definitely ready for children’s books—but not necessarily Kawabata Yasunari. Intermediate or advanced kanji ability is a must-have for higher-level classics. If you attempt to read at a few steps higher than your current reading level, you’ll struggle to understand the plotline and spend an unexciting 20 minutes trudging through a single sentence, which, trust me, nobody wants to do. Short stories might be short, but that doesn’t make them any less complicated or kanji-stuffed than novels.
- Vocabulary. Maybe you’ve been studying a while and have a decent number of kanji under your belt. But do you know each kanji’s 音読み (おんよみ – Chinese reading) and 訓読み (くんよみ – Japanese reading)? Do you recognize onomatopoeia like the back of your hand? What about casual Japanese slang, or those pesky proverbs old Japanese people mutter when they’re frustrated? A fairly vast vocabulary and keen understanding of Japanese phrases is essential to being able to read short stories smoothly.
- Reading experience. Have you practiced reading real Japanese with newspapers, children’s books or fairy tales? If so, you’re probably ready for some famous short stories. If not, start with simpler and clearer forms of writing before advancing to similes.
- Dictionary. No matter how good you get at Japanese, there will always be words you don’t know. Make sure to have a dictionary or a dictionary app on hand whenever you sit down to read. But if you find you’re relying on your dictionary way too often, it’s okay to take a step back and revert to more level-appropriate reading materials.
- Time. Most importantly, can you allocate a lot of your free time to reading a Japanese short story? Reading in a foreign language isn’t an easy task by any means and will take you a while the first time around. Don’t treat Japanese short stories like a race—but don’t immediately give up if they’re taking you longer than you thought they would, either.
With all this in mind, I’ve broken down the 12 best resources for short stories into three major categories. Each category is based mainly on your Japanese reading skill level.
The Shortcut to Fluency: 3 Types of Famous Japanese Short Stories
1. English and Japanese Bilingual Short Story Collections (Parallel Texts)
Bilingual short story collections, or parallel texts, are compilations of new and canonized short stories, in which each page of Japanese text is accompanied by an adjacent page of English translation. The layouts differ depending on the content and editors, but you can usually expect these types of books to include a combination of the following features: furigana, dictionaries, paragraph numbers, historical/grammatical notes, vocabulary explanations and CDs.
- Upper beginner and intermediate learners.
- Those looking for convenience and built-in assistance.
- Those requiring a constant stream of English translation to reference as needed.
A fascinating and satisfyingly cohesive read, “Breaking into Japanese Literature: Seven Modern Classics in Parallel Text” offers bilingual versions of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s most iconic pieces, “Rashōmon” and “In a Grove,” as well as four sections of Natsume Sōseki’s “Ten Nights of Dreams.”
The Japanese is accompanied by comprehensive, same-page dictionaries and relies on paragraph numbering for quick referencing. The book is also divided into sections depending on your reading ability, with level one being the easiest and three the most difficult.
In the same vein as Giles Murray’s previous book, “Exploring Japanese Literature: Read Mishima, Tanizaki and Kawabata in the Original” offers an easy-to-follow collection of equally classic tales. While its most notable addition is Mishima Yukio’s “Patriotism,” the book also contains Tanizaki Jun’ichirō’s “The Secret” and a clip from Kawabata Yasunari’s novel and masterwork, “Snow Country.” Although not categorized by reading levels, the stories are longer and generally more challenging than those in “Breaking into Japanese Literature.”
“Short Stories in Japanese: New Penguin Parallel Text” by Michael Emmerich
This 272-page compendium consists of a variety of short stories by both well-known and emerging contemporary writers, with its most famous contributors being Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana. Perhaps the most challenging on this list, “Short Stories in Japanese: New Penguin Parallel Text” flaunts a simplistic and authentic-feeling layout: the Japanese is printed vertically, and all notes can be found in the back of the book rather than below the text.
“Read Real Japanese Fiction: Short Stories by Contemporary Writers” by Michael Emmerich
Another solid option for those looking to catch up on acclaimed modern short stories is “Read Real Japanese Fiction: Short Stories by Contemporary Writers.” The collection is structurally similar to “Short Stories in Japanese” and flaunts a fascinatingly versatile array of genres, from horror to drama. Additionally, three of the six writers spotlighted are female (Yoshimoto Banana, Kawakami Hiromi and Tawada Yoko).
2. Online Databases
In this age of technology and hyper-convenience, the Internet is always at our fingertips. So why not use it to dig up some Japanese literary gems? Many online databases and digital libraries offer unlimited access to dozens, sometimes hundreds, of famous short stories in the original Japanese.
So, if you’re bored and totally broke, this is the resource for you.
- Intermediate and advanced learners.
- Those trying to save money.
- Those interested in vast, eclectic collections of stories.
A digital library sponsored by the University of Virginia and the University of Pittsburgh, the Japanese Text Initiative is an excellent resource for classical Japanese works of fiction. The site includes full-text versions (with or without furigana) of dozens of Japanese writers’ works, from poetry to short stories to essays. Some notable writers are Akutagawa Ryūnosuke and Natsume Sōseki. Oh, and Matsuo Bashō for those into poetry, too.
Aozora is an enormous database with a rich supply of famous Japanese short stories. Everything on the website—including the names, titles and search results—is in 日本語 (にほんご – Japanese), so be prepared to immerse yourself entirely in the language before proceeding.
To search, choose the first hiragana of either the author’s last name or the title of the work you want to read. Once you’ve landed the correct result, you can view the story as an HTML file in your web browser or download it.
Like Aozora, the Japan P.E.N. Club Digital Library is a sprawling database containing a plethora of literature, nonfiction and poetry. You can find clips of novels (which can be treated as short stories if you’re practicing for novels in the long run) and novellas/short stories by clicking on the 小説 (しょうせつ – novel) link. Famous writers included on this site are Mishima Yukio, Natsume Sōseki and Tanizaki Jun’ichirō.
Personally, I recommend a brilliant piece of short fiction called 片腕 (かたうで – “One Arm”) by Kawabata Yasunari.
3. Short Stories and Collections with Available English Translations
Let’s say you’re ready to chow down on some Japanese fiction, but you’re not sure what you like, or if you’ll be able to totally understand a short story after an initial read-through. What do you do?
Well, one solution is to scout out universally acclaimed Japanese short story writers. These are the people who are pretty much guaranteed to have published both stand-alone tales and collections of short stories in Japanese and English.
As a result, you can start with the English translations of their most famous pieces before transitioning to the original Japanese. Not only will you get a chance to read a bunch of interesting stories, but you’ll also become familiar with your chosen writer’s style and what makes their writing unique. Essentially, you’ll be conducting your own “parallel text” reading sessions.
- Upper intermediate and advanced learners.
- Those looking for consistency in style, genre and/or theme.
- Those on a quest to find their favorite Japanese writers.
Our resources listed here are all famous, fabulous Japanese authors!
芥川龍之介 (あくたがわ りゅうのすけ – Akutagawa Ryūnosuke)
Serving posthumously as the inspiration for Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke is widely regarded as the “father of the Japanese short story.” Some of his most famous works include 「地 獄変」 (じごくへん – “Hell Screen”), 「蜘蛛の糸」(くもの いと – “The Spider’s Thread”) and「藪の中」(やぶの なか – “In a Grove”), which became the basis for Kurosawa Akira’s memorable film,「羅生門」(らしょうもん – “Rashōmon”).
谷崎純一郎 (たにざき じゅんいちろう) – Tanizaki Jun’ichirō
Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, often compared to Edgar Allen Poe, was a prolific short story writer and novelist. His debut short story, 「刺青」(しせい – “The Tattooer”), remains one of his most compelling pieces today. You can read more of his short stories in English in “Seven Japanese Tales.”
If you enjoy Tanizaki’s notoriously evocative style, try moving on to some (curiously named) Japanese-language compendiums: 「谷崎純一郎マゾヒズム小説集 (たにざき じゅんいちろう まぞひずむ しょうせつしゅう – “Tanizaki Jun’ichirō Masochism Stories Collection”) or 「谷崎純一郎フェティシズム小説集 (たにざき じゅんいちろう ふぇてぃしずむ しょうせつしゅう – “Tanizaki Jun’ichirō Fetishism Stories Collection”).
川端康成 (かわばた やすなり – Kawabata Yasunari)
Best known as the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, Kawabata Yasunari is a prolific novelist and short story writer with a proclivity for breathtaking and poetic imagery. Some of his most popular novels include 「雪国」(ゆきぐに – “Snow Country”) and 「古都」(こと – “The Old Capital”), but he also composed novellas and short stories, many of which you can read in his collection titled 「掌の小説 (たなごころの しょうせつ」- “Palm-of-the-Hand Stories”). (Or, you can start with the English version instead.)
吉本ばなな (よしもと ばなな – Yoshimoto Banana)
One of Japan’s most famous contemporary female writers, Yoshimoto Banana (her real name is Yoshimoto Mahoko) has been lauded countless times for her portrayal of eccentric, albeit relatable, characters. She has published a mixture of novels, short stories and essays, and is most well known internationally for her debut story, 「キッチン」(きっちん – “Kitchen”), for which she won the 6th Kaien Newcomer Writers Prize in 1987. One popular short story collection of Yoshimoto is 「とかげ」, or “Lizard” in English.
村上春樹 (むらかみ はるき – Murakami Haruki)
If you haven’t heard of Murakami Haruki, I’d be surprised. Arguably Japan’s most critically acclaimed novelist (and equally polarizing writer), Murakami offers bizarre style fused with surreal, dreamlike storytelling. His continued literary accomplishments have even fed into rumors about whether or not he will win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Luckily for us, the bulk of Murakami’s work has been translated into English, making for easy “parallel text” learning. When it comes to short stories, Murakami has published many well-received pieces, including the collection, “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” (which originated as an English-only collection; now you can purchase the Japanese “reverse-import” version as well). Another short story compilation exists in Japanese and English, called 「象の消滅」(ぞうの しょうめつ – “The Elephant Vanishes”).
Still debating whether to close that textbook? Stop. Really, just stop and put it away for now. Because, obviously, if you’re still reading this, you’ve already decided you deserve a break from your typical study habits.
Take it from me: Nothing beats repetitive kanji drills like curling up with a good short story.
And who knows? You never know what you might read—or, rather, what you might learn.
And One More Thing…
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Hannah Muniz is a freelance writer and translator in the greater Houston area.
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