If there was a contest for “the most challenging written language in the world,” Japanese would easily win it.
Being so complex, written Japanese can seem like an entirely separate language from spoken Japanese.
But in fact, reading skills and listening skills complement each other to a high degree.
You can’t read Japanese well if you can’t listen to it well, and vice versa.
Luckily for learners, there’s an excellent way to develop both of these different skills at the same time: studying with audiobooks.
Why Audiobooks Are a Win-win for Learning Japanese
If you manage to get your hands on a story that you can read and listen to at the same time, it means some very big things for your learning.
First of all, any word you can’t recognize from hearing is there for you to look up in a dictionary, which gives you the opportunity to understand 100% of the words you listen to. This is something you can never achieve without seeing an exact textual equivalent to your listening material.
Second, you can instantly and effortlessly know the correct pronunciation of every word in the text, without guessing or wishing you had furigana to rescue you. This is an extremely useful thing in Japanese, as it removes one of the most stubborn obstacles to fluent reading.
Lastly, you can use these audiobooks along with and in much the same way as FluentU. FluentU is a complete online immersion program that takes real-world videos—like movie trailers, music videos, news, vlogs and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. It comes with bilingual subtitles, once again giving you audio and text. Combine Japanese audiobooks with FluentU and you’ll be unstoppable.
Stayed tuned until the end of this post for a more in-depth overview of FluentU and its many useful features.
How to Find Quality Japanese Audiobooks Online
You won’t get very far if you look up the word オーディオブック (おーでぃお ぶっく — audiobook) or similar variations. The keyword that will unlock the door to great Japanese audiobooks is 朗読 (ろうどく) or “reading aloud.”
Since so many quality texts of Japanese literature have entered the public domain, their source texts are freely available online for you to use together with audio recordings. And this same availability of the texts also makes them easy for native speakers to record and distribute on the web.
If you do a simple search with the title of a famous text and the keyword 朗読, you’ll usually find numerous versions of it being read aloud on YouTube or other popular websites. It also helps that the Japanese themselves seem to have a natural gift for making well-made recordings; most audio versions you’ll find will be read in clear, correct Japanese that will be a good model for your own pronunciation.
But even better than YouTube audiobooks are those that are shared on dedicated audiobook websites. The number one place for such recordings of Japanese literature is 青空朗読 (あおぞらろうどく — Aozora Rōdoku), which has free recordings of public-domain texts that are available in text-only versions on Aozora Bunko. The narrators are all top-notch, and there are even EPUB versions of some books where the text is highlighted as it’s being read aloud—a great feature to help you follow the speech in real time.
Another website with superb and free Japanese audiobooks is LibriVox, which is especially useful for finding longer, novel-length books.
Here are a few recommended audiobooks of famous texts by two of the most popular Japanese authors among learners and native readers alike—Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (芥川龍之介 / あくたがわりゅうのすけ) and Natsume Sōseki (夏目漱石 / なつめそうせき)—followed by works from other famous authors for further reading.
In addition to the audio versions, links to the text versions on Aozora Bunko are also provided in order to enable you to read them conveniently while listening.
11 Top-notch Audiobooks by Famous Japanese Writers
Texts by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke
As the most famous writer of short stories in modern Japanese literature, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke has long been one of the first stops for any learner who makes the move from textbook readings to authentic Japanese texts.
However, Akutagawa’s texts are far from entry-level Japanese; being somewhat old, the language used in them can be challenging to read. The way to go is to focus on well-known stories, for which you can easily find English translations, analyses and other helpful materials. Here are a few suggestions.
1. “The Spider’s Thread” — 蜘蛛の糸 (くものいと)
“The Spider’s Thread” is a Buddhist-themed story that takes place in Heaven, Hell and the space in between. A vicious criminal gets an opportunity to escape from Hell, but for that he must overcome his own ego. Will he succeed?
- Listen to the audiobook (Recording length: 10:57 minutes.)
2. “Rashōmon” — 羅生門 (らしょうもん)
This is one of the most well-known of Akutagawa’s stories, which is set in a dilapidated medieval Kyoto. A lone servant takes shelter from the rain in a ruined city gate, and discovers that he’s not alone there.
- Listen to the audiobook (Recording no. 3 on the list; length: 19:36 minutes.)
3. “In a Grove” — 藪の中 (やぶのなか)
A murder incident is described by several different witnesses, each of whom gives a conflicting account of the events. Another very famous story, largely thanks to Kurosawa Akira’s film “Rashōmon,” whose plot is a hybrid between this and the above-mentioned story.
- Listen to the audiobook (Recording no. 19 on the list; length: 24:21 minutes.)
Texts by Natsume Sōseki
Natsume Sōseki is Japan’s best-loved author, and a must-read writer for every learner. Most of his texts, though, are quite challenging, and his focus on novel-length works doesn’t make reading practice any easier. Luckily, though, some of Natsume’s texts are quite accessible, as you’ll see below.
By the way, people often confuse this writer’s first and last name, which can give you trouble finding his works if the names are mixed up in the text details. So it’s a good idea to remember that the family name is Natsume (夏目 / なつめ), while the given name is Sōseki (漱石 / そうせき, which is actually a pen name). The original given name was Kinnosuke (金之助 / きんのすけ).
4. “Kokoro” — こころ
Arguably Natsume’s most popular and most “Japanese” novel, “Kokoro” tells of a special relationship between a student and a mysterious older man who becomes a very unusual mentor to him. Despite being a long text, “Kokoro” is highly suitable for studying purposes because it’s written in straightforward language and divided into 110 very short chapters.
- Listen to the audiobook (Recording length: 8:46:41 hours. Divided into the novel’s 110 chapters, with each recording around five minutes long.)
5. “Botchan” — 坊ちゃん (ぼっちゃん)
Being able to understand humor in a foreign language is a definite proof that you’re on the right track, so if you can follow this sarcastic, deadpan novel about a novice teacher from Tokyo who gets sent to a wacky school in the countryside, you have reason to be proud of your Japanese. Although harder to read than “Kokoro,” this is a highly recommended text if you’re an intermediate or above.
- Listen to the audiobook (Recording length: 4:26:27 hours. Divided into the novel’s 11 chapters, with each recording around 20-30 minutes long.)
6. “Ten Nights of Dreams” — 夢十夜 (ゆめじゅうや)
This is a cycle of 10 independent short stories. Each story is self-contained and describes a different dream, and the texts are the perfect gateway to Natsume’s work—in length, subject matter and language level. The length of the recordings depends on the audiobook version, and is generally under 10 minutes per story.
- Listen to the audiobooks (source 1): Aozora Rōdoku has recordings for the first, second, third, seventh and tenth nights.
- Listen to the audiobooks (source 2): For a complete set of all ten stories, visit this website.
- Read the original text (all 10 stories)
Texts from Other Famous Writers to Explore
While Akutagawa and Natsume are the “go-to” Japanese authors that any learner should know about, there are many, many others that would be just as suitable for your studies. Here’s a list of a few great texts by some of those writers, for further reading and discovery.
7. “The Boat on the Takase River” — 高瀬舟 (たかせぶね)
Author: Mori Ōgai — 森鴎外 (もりおうがい)
8. “The Firefly” — 赤とんぼ (あかとんぼ)
Author: Niimi Nankichi — 新美南吉 (にいみなんきち)
9. “The Mushroom Conference” — きのこ会議 (きのこかいぎ)
Author: Yumeno Kyūsaku — 夢野久作 (ゆめのきゅうさく)
10. “The Restaurant of Many Orders” — 注文の多い料理店 (ちゅうもんのおおいりょうりてん)
Author: Miyazawa Kenji — 宮沢賢治 (みやざわけんじ)
11. “Waiting” — 待つ (まつ)
Author: Dazai Osamu — 太宰治 (だざいおさむ)
This way you can be sure you’ll find just the right materials for your needs.
Enjoy your reading!
Dan Bornstein is the creator, writer and translator of Reajer, a constantly expanding series of bilingual Japanese readers that develop advanced reading skills using real literature.
And One More Thing…
If you love learning Japanese with authentic materials like audiobooks, then you’ll want to hear all about FluentU.
As noted earlier, FluentU takes real-world videos like music videos, commercials, news, and inspiring talks and turns them into Japanese learning experiences. It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn real Japanese as it’s spoken in real life.
FluentU has a broad range of contemporary videos—like music videos, dramas, TV shows, and TV commercials:
FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts. Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
All definitions have multiple examples, and they’re written for Japanese learners like you. Tap to add words you’d like to review to a vocab list.
And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples.
The best part? FluentU keeps track of your vocabulary, and it suggests content and examples based on your vocabulary. You’ll have a 100% personalized experience.
The FluentU app is now available for iPhone, and it’s also available as a website that you can use with your computer or tablet. If you’re an Android user, fear not, for our Android app is in the works!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.