Struggling to cross that hurdle from beginning to intermediate Japanese?
Why not pick up a bilingual reader?
Bilingual readers are a fantastic way to fast-track your lexicon and improve your understanding of culture and colloquialisms. You can build on the grammar and vocabulary you already know by reading authentic texts.
The good news is, you know tons of Japanese already. You’ve gotten a good grip on a few hundred kanji, your working vocabulary is more than passable and you can hold a fair conversation—for a few minutes at least. With a good foundation, it’s not that hard to step up your game into the intermediate level. Even if your skills are lagging a bit behind in one area or another, readers will guide you to reading success.
The bad news is, it can sometimes be difficult to track down bilingual books that aren’t completely dry. Textbooks, while handy when picking up grammar, get a bit stale after a while—so why not change the pace and pick up some bilingual fiction instead?
Breaking into the Bilingual Life
The six books below are mostly collections of short stories—and one of comics—designed to challenge as well as encourage your reading fluency.
With more than 2,000 common kanji, learning to read Japanese can be daunting. But these books take it slow.
The stories are original Japanese tales from the 20th century by award-winning writers and essayists. In each book, the stories build on each other, introducing you to unique idioms and colloquialisms, all while supplementing this content with on-page grammar and cultural notes. And what’s more, they’re all genuine pieces of Japanese text—none have been watered down for an English-speaking audience.
This is the real deal. No all-hiragana children’s texts, no cookie-cutter dialogues. And the texts themselves are pieces of horror, romance and tragedy chosen to inspire and captivate. Soon you’ll forget you’re learning because you’ll be too engrossed in the stories themselves!
So throw away your hesitation and frustration, and let’s step into the lively world of Japanese literature.
6 Bilingual Starter Books for Intermediate Japanese Learners
Here’s a bonus: You can get bilingual reading practice while also honing your listening skills and learning vocabulary with FluentU.
FluentU is about so much more than videos: You also get access to interactive flashcards and vocab lists, annotated subtitles and personalized quizzes that evolve as you learn. It’s a great way to ease into reading full-length material. And with videos for every skill level, you can keep learning with FluentU throughout your language-learning journey.
“Mangajin’s Basic Japanese Through Comics”
by Ashizawa Kazuko
“Mangajin’s Basic Japanese through Comics” (parts one and two) is a great resource to deepen your cultural understanding of seemingly basic material. With the help of comic excerpts and politeness levels, this book elaborates on simple words like はい and all the social situations and nuances that come with it.
The comics used tend to focus on daily life in school or the office, in real situations that you may just come across in Japan. Politeness is indicated by levels 1-4 to give readers a hint. Among the topics covered are the many uses of あの, すみません and even ばか.
“Breaking into Japanese Literature: Seven Modern Classics in Parallel Text”
Edited by Giles Murray
“Breaking into Japanese Literature” was the first bilingual work I read and I continue to be impressed by it. The book starts with basic short stories and, as the reader’s confidence grows, so does the length of complexity of the material. The reader is designed to stand alone—all definitions and furigana are included on-page, and English translations are on the right side while Japanese is on the left.
Additionally, each new kanji is listed with a number that corresponds to the “Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary,” which allows you to quickly reference new and related vocabulary.
The stories themselves cross a variety of genres—from the surrealism of Natsume Soseki’s “Ten Nights of Dreams” or the chilling period drama of “In a Grove” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Each story is prefaced with a quick biography of the author and related works, and MP3 sound files are available for free on the Internet.
“Read Real Japanese Fiction: Short Stories by Contemporary Writers”
Edited by Michael Emmerich
“Read Real Japanese Fiction” presents six stories written originally for Japanese audiences. The texts challenge readers with modern, provocative works of horror and offbeat poetry.
The text runs from top to bottom, right to left, and a face-to-face English translation is presented on the side. Everything is right in the book so you don’t have to keep thumbing a dictionary—a small introduction to each text, a small glossary in the back and the enthusiastic footnotes of editor Michael Emmerich thoroughly explain nuances of culture, usage and grammar.
The writers have arranged the stories like a “six-course dinner,” beginning with a light, quirky starter by Kawakami Hiromi, expanding horizons with a poetic story about a man who makes mummies and topping off with a sweet and dazzling flavor by Tawada Yoko. As an added bonus, a CD is included for you to listen to while you read along with the text.
“Read Real Japanese: Contemporary Writings by Popular Authors”
Edited by Janet Ashby
This collection of essays by eight popular authors is the companion to Emmerich’s stories. Intended for a slightly more advanced audience, the book is arranged by serious learners of the Japanese language. Featured writers include Banana Yoshimoto, Haruki Murakami and Seiko Ito.
This is a perfect reader to start breaking out of textbook Japanese. Each text is coupled with extensive notes on grammar, nuance, usage and those pesky particles. The notes also give great insight into why the translators decided on a particular word or phrase, which may be handy for aspiring translators. And, like Emmerich’s version, it comes with a CD for you to listen to as you read.
“Reading Japanese with a Smile: Nine Stories from a Japanese Weekly Magazine for Intermediate Learners”
Edited by Tom Gally
Step out of the literary loop and take a stab at the newspaper scene with this book. Taken from the weekly magazine Shukan Asahi, these nine stories take a close and curious look at contemporary Japan. Each story is followed by a simple translation, a short glossary of words and phrases, a list of reverse derivations of verbs and adjectives and detailed notes on culture, vocabulary and grammar.
These stories are all true and quite engaging and short enough to sample in bursts. Though the material appears less academic than the other books in the list, the content is nothing if not compelling.
The book is organized to be somewhat repetitive: First, the original story and the English translation are presented face-to-face in their entirety, then they’re followed by the original story presented again one or two sentences at a time with furigana and notes included. This way the vocabulary is reinforced several times. All in all, it makes for light reading and a great introduction to Japanese magazines.
“Exploring Japanese Literature”
Edited by Giles Murray
This book is Giles Murray’s second contribution to the world of literature, and it picks up where the previous one left off. Unlike its predecessor, however, “Exploring Japanese Literature” contains only three pieces of writing: “Snow Country” by Yasunari Kawabata, “Patriotism” by Yukio Mishima and “The Secret” by Junichiro Tanizaki. All three authors are literary giants and their works are must-reads for any student of world literature.
The texts are extremely descriptive and heart-wrenching, ranging from poignant romance to gruesome realism. “Exploring Japanese Literature” avoids the redundancy of sequels by offering readers more than 100 pages and hundreds of brand new words.
Each story is printed in large-type Japanese on the left with English translations on the right and a glossary running along the bottom. As a bonus, the book also features mini-biographies, evocative illustrations and a companion website, (speaking-japanese.com) where learners can discuss interpretations of the reading.
So, those are my best recommendations for intermediate Japanese books.
(You can find even more engaging, level-specific material on White Rabbit Japan. Just go to the “Japanese Language” menu and select “Reading Material.” You’ll find graded readers, manga, literature and bilingual texts, all sortable by level.)
Each book will expose you to a variety of texts—playful, mysterious, surreal, stark—but all accessible and enlightening.
Each book is self-contained so you can keep reviewing what you learned.
Though challenging, before long the texts will blossom along with your language skills.
Wailana Kalama is a freelance writer and linguaphile in Reykjavik, Iceland. Besides dabbling in Old Norse and Icelandic, she loves to read spooky Japanese tales in the original. Check out her writings at waikalama.com.
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