I had a goal this year of reading at least six books in Japanese. Halfway through the year I’m up to seven, and halfway though another one:
Ogawa Youko, The Professor’s Beloved Equation
Uehashi Nahoko, The Far Side of the Fox-Flute
Miura Shion, Tada’s Do-It-All House
Sakuraba Kazuki, The Reading Club For Youth
Mori Eto, Colorful
君が見つける物語 十代のため 友情編
Stories for you to find, for teens — friendship volume
Ogawa Youko, Pregnancy Calendar
So, perhaps the best thing about trying extensive reading over a longish period of time — not just a book or two, but six months of books — is discovering new authors that I like — namely, Miura Shion and Ogawa Youko. (I already loved Sakuraba Kazuki and Mori Eto.) I think reading in a foreign language is often an uncomfortable balance between sticking to the authors you already know you like, and taking the risk of reading authors you may hate. Not that there’s anything wrong with reading ten or twelve books by the same author, but after a certain point you move from “Oh, sure, Murakami is great” to “OOOOOMG I love Murakami but I cannot stand his women characters. CANNOT.” Which is why I haven’t read any Murakami these last six months.
The other thing I love about extensive reading is getting so engrossed in a book that I stop looking at it as study material and just look at it as I would any good book — I read it on the bus, I read it in the bathroom, i can’t wait to find out what happens next.
Last week I lost my keys and I had to take the bus back to work to go looking for them, and much as it was a pain in the neck to do so, I was really glad for the chance to read more of Dazai Osamu’s <em>Joseito</em>.
My reading speed has definitely improved; I’m not so sure about my vocabulary. At this point the words I haven’t learned are either comparatively uncommon, or comparatively uncommon in contemporary fiction, so I might need to read six more novels to come across them again. My half-baked theory is that reading speed comes first, and then when you get to a point where you can easily finish a book in a couple of days — not that I’m sure I’ll ever get to that point — it becomes much easier to absorb vocabulary passively. (I’ve also been using Learning With Texts for intensive reading + SRS; it’s a program that suits me very well, but whenever I try to do intensive reading I’m reminded that there are so many words I don’t know… that I might only see once in 100,000 words.)
I recommend <em>Pregnancy Calendar</em> to people who like books that are subtly balanced between creepy and straight-up horror, <em>Colorful</em> to people who like feel-good coming-of-age stories, and <em>The Reading Club For Youth</em> to people who like gender play, intellectualism, and the cruelties of youth. I recommend <em>Tada’s Do-It-All House</em> to everybody. (Reading Club is perhaps the hardest of these. Colorful and 君が見つける物語 are probably the easiest. The rest are somewhere in the middle, although the fantasy-historical setting of 狐笛 is a bit hard to deal with at first.)
Right now, I’m studying for level 5 of the Kanji Kentei. I don’t particularly have any intention of writing the test — the nearest testing site is in New Jersey, 2 hours away, which seems like a huge hassle for anything as low as level 5, though I’m open to changing my mind. (Eventually I would like to bring myself up to level 2, whether I ultimately decide to take the test or not. Level 1 is for overachieving suckers, but I’m kinda an overachieving sucker, so who knows?)
This is much easier than the last time I tried to study for level 5. I had the kanji knowledge then, more or less, but I didn’t have the vocabulary. Now, there’s definitely vocabulary I don’t know — especially 4-character compounds — but it usually takes me only a repetition or two of a given compound before it sticks in my head pretty solidly. Why? These are words I see all the time. These are kanji I see all the time.
Back when I was in high school, I asked my teacher for extra kanji homework, because that’s the kind of ridiculous brownnoser I was. I didn’t get all that far with it, though, and I even remember the kanji that gave me so much trouble. 農. Now, it’s a fairly complicated kanji, but I’m also the person who wrote 愛と正義 about a million times in her notebook, so that wasn’t the only factor. Really, the problem was — I hardly ever saw it. I was at a level then when I was only reading my textbook and manga, and how many manga are there about farming? (There are a few, but I wasn’t reading any of them.) It’s not like I read so many farming manga now, either, but because the volume and variety of what I’m reading is so much higher than it was back then, I’m bound to see it enough so that I can remember it.
I know it’s dangerous to try to generalize too much from my experience, but this is why I’m skeptical of the idea of trying to learn thousands of kanji before you get started on even putting basic sentences together. It ensures that for however long it takes you to finish learning the kanji, and for at least a couple months thereafter, the only kanji exposure that you get is in the context of trying to memorize kanji in isolation. It could be that mnemonics and stories are enough bootstrapping to overcome that obstacle, at least for some people. But I suspect it’s a reason that so many people drop out of RTK without finishing it.
(I think RTK Lite is a step in the right direction — but really, I would want to bring it down to something like 800 kanji, and even then I think it’s better to gain some basic oral and/or hiragana proficiency before trying to tackle kanji.)
I guess it’s a good thing that what trips me up now, more than anything, when reading contemporary Japanese fiction, is cultural references that I don’t yet. I’m reading Kitamura Kaoru’s 鷺と雪 (Egrets and Snow) right now, and it’s clearly a notch above what I normally read in difficulty, partly because it takes place in the 1930s — partly because of the author’s style, I guess.
But you come to a part like this.
The girl, Eiko, is relating to her older brother something she read about how the river near the Tokyo Bay gets shallower when the tide is out.
Okay, I probably should have guessed from くだらないわね that it’s an eye-rolly kind of older brother joke. But I had to go and look up 大化の改新, which turns out to be government reforms in the year 645, and Kamatari turns out to be Fujiwara no Kamatari, who was instrumental in implementing those reforms.
This is actually a nice bit of work, from a literary perspective, because it establishes the family as the sort of intellectuals who would make that kind of pun. It tells you a little about the brother and about the sister and their relationship with each other.
But I couldn’t help thinking, I spend all that time looking up those references and it was a DAD PUN?
One of these days I’m going to make a Grand Unified Theory of difficulty versus interesting-ness — the idea being that there’s a certain optimum level of difficulty but you will read a harder book if it’s really interesting.
In this case the really interesting book is 青年のための読書クラブ by 桜庭一樹.
Just by a quick glance I think it’s obvious that the kanji are, on average, a lot harder than some of the books I’ve quoted previously, though a few of them do have furigana (僅差、幼馴染、学び舎、繋いで、讃える) and some of the ones that use middle-school and above kanji are so common that they should be immediately familiar to anyone who’s done a fair amount of reading (後輩、微笑む、and 彼女, obviously; 柔らかい、誇り、繋ぐ、and 醜い are certainly common enough to be worth knowing.)
But the real difference between this passage and previous ones I’ve quoted is that there’s a lot more rare vocabulary and the level of the narration as a whole is much more abstract. This is a book where storytelling is really important. (The conceit is that five important incidents in the history of a Catholic girl’s school in Tokyo are being written down by members of the school’s reading club who were peripherally involved in the events). Gossip is important. The flow of information is important. So a sophisticated writer like Sakuraba — who’s written light novels, but who has also won the Naoki prize! — is going to use a prose style that’s a little bit arch and intellectual. (One thing that doesn’t show up in the passage that I quoted is that ～の如く and ～たる, both relatively advanced grammar points, are all over the place in this book. I saw たる when I was studying for the JLPT, but it took this book to really drum it into me!)
Perhaps the point I’m trying to make over the course of these posts is that reading is almost never just a kanji problem. It’s a vocabulary problem, it’s a grammar problem, it’s a problem of being able to read with a focus on meaning and pragmatics rather than an overly narrow concern with the meaning of each clause. And I think that’s the case here. If you can cope with ～たる and 自明の理, you can certainly cope with 繋ぐ. (Which is one of those non-joyo kanji that seems to show up absolutely everywhere if you read certain kinds of books.)
I think the other interesting thing about this book, linguistically, is its use of topic vocabulary. The idea is that a book may use a certain amount of base vocabulary that’s used in any context, and also a certain amount of less common worse, and also a certain amount of topic vocabulary that’s used in the book far more than in a random sample of text because it relates specifically to the subject of the book. For example, I.S.P. Nation analyzed the movie Shrek in the article How Large A Vocabulary Is Needed For Reading? and found that the movie contained many words outside of the most common words in English; but a lot of these, like “witch,” “ogre,” “lava,” “coward,” “steed,” and “ass” are specifically related to the content of the story, and repeated several times. In 青年のための読書クラブ, too, there are many vocabulary words that are repeated over and over, either because they relate to the story’s content, or because of an artistic quirk on the part of the author. This is a good thing inasmuch as meeting a new word several times within a short period of time is likely to make it stick better; and I hope I never again forget what the word ハリボテ means.
Light novels can be easier than serious adult novels. They do tend to have more furigana, and they do tend to be less depressing (which can be a major demotivating factor in reading!), but it’s not always the case that they’re easier to read.
Let’s take a look at The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi, by Tanigawa Nagaru.
Kanji and compounds that have furigana are:
鞄 呆れる 枕 薦められる
So, there do tend to be more furigana than on a typical adult novel. (This is just my own intuition; it’s often possible to find text files for light novels, but not for adult novels, so it’s hard for me to do any quantitative analysis. I do think there are some fairly easy words that have furigana; flipping through the book, 呟く、怖い、儀式、握る、面倒くさい、子猫、可愛い.)
But if you look at it in terms of vocabulary?
最初 and 手芸 are JLPT 1. 最初 seems way too common for it to be JLPT 1, but 手芸 is genuinely uncommon. 例外、断る、and 参加 are JLPT 2. 放課後 and 仮入部 don’t appear on the JLPT list at all, I guess because both are restricted to specific school-related contexts, and while 放課後 is a word you should definitely be familiar with I’d never heard 仮入部 before reading this passage. Other orange words are JLPT 3 level or easier.
縫う and 枕 are JLPT 2. 薦める is not on the JLPT list, though the other すすめる kanji — 進める、勧める — are, so that shouldn’t pose a problem.
I think the evidence is that the vocabulary in Haruhi is a little bit more advanced than what I’ve seen in the other novels that I’ve looked at, but the real difficulty is not in the content vocabulary but in the grammar.
あげく is a JLPT 2 grammar point, so it’s a little advanced but not too bad. さにあらず is … well, the negative with ず is a JLPT 3 grammar point, but I think it takes a fairly experienced command of the language to link さ with そう, and realize that あらず is a negative derived from ある (because usually the negative derived from ある is ない).
So, even though it’s a light novel and you’d think it would be easier, I find that Tanigawa uses just a few wonky touches in his style that make the book more advanced than it initially appears.
By the way, I just want to address why I’m referring to JLPT levels in assessing the difficulty level of particular items. It’s not as if everyone is studying to pass the JLPT or making vocabulary lists based on the items that the JLPT tests, and I don’t even think that’s a good idea. I don’t have access to a wide corpus of word-frequency data (the one in edict is just based on newspapers, which aren’t really representative of real-life world usefulness unless you really like talking about finance and politics). The JLPT isn’t perfect, but I think the vocabulary it tests is a pretty good proxy for how useful and common any particular word is.
Also, even though I only post a paragraph or two from the actual text, when I make a post like this one I’ve read a significant chunk of the book. Maybe not the whole thing, but certainly at least 25 pages or so. So I’m not cherry-picking what might be the one weird word in a whole book; I’m trying to make sure it meets the standard of “Yeah, it’s actually like this the whole way through.”
Here’s Stephen Krashen on narrow reading:
Most foreign and second language classes provide students with exposure to a variety of topics. Beginning level texts typically jump from topic to topic (e.g. “shopping,” “ordering food,” “families”), “readers” usually include several different kinds of short articles (e.g. “nonverbal communication,” “mind, body and health,”) and short stories, and introductory courses in literature usually give the student only one short example of each author’s work. Only later, in advanced courses, does a second language student “specialize,” e.g. by taking classes in “20th century fiction,” and only the most advanced students focus on the work of a single author. The assumption behind this is that exposure to different topics, genres, and styles is beneficial.
This may be all wrong. It may be that narrow input is much more efficient for second language acquisition. It may be much better if second language acquirers specialize early rather than late. This means reading several books by one author or about a single topic of interest. (I focus here on reading, but the idea of narrow input has been applied to listening as well; see e.g. Krashen, 1996; Rodrigo and Krashen, 1996; Dupuy, 1999).
So, what occurred to me this evening is that I may have been looking all wrong at this problem of acquiring low-frequency vocabulary from authentic materials, i.e. Sekai magazine.
Sekai is a magazine that deals with politics and world affairs. But this is an awfully broad field, especially when you look at vocabulary acquisition. The February 2012 issue has articles on the COP 17 climate change conference in Durban, South Africa; a new alliance of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean; a new information disclosure law that may have bad effects on citizens’ right to know and journalists’ right to gather information; the changing relationships between Japan and the U.S., and China and the U.S., in the post-cold-war/post-9/11 era; reconstruction after the 3/11 earthquake; and that’s just the first 50 pages in a magazine that’s over 300 pages long.
Krashen identifies several advantages to narrow reading:
1) Reading material on the same topic, and by the same author, provides a lot of built-in review by recycling vocabulary. A good study on this appeared in the journal Reading in a Foreign Language. Dee Gardner found that reading nonfiction materials on the same topic (for example, mummies) provided the most vocabulary recycling; reading fiction by a single author also provided a certain amount of recycled vocabulary, though reading fiction by several different authors within the same genre did not.
2) Reading on a topic where you already have some amount of background knowledge makes reading easier and more motivating. You can put the information into a framework you already have. I definitely found this to be true last year, in the days and weeks following the earthquake, when I spent a lot of time reading about nuclear reactors on English wikipedia to be able to follow the discussions in Japanese!
So, in many ways, a magazine like Sekai functions like one of those textbooks Krashen is skeptical of, jumping from topic to topic while leaving students with little chance to get settled in and let knowledge build on itself.
Thus, I wonder if the best way to make use of Sekai may be to skip past the short articles (except when they relate to areas I really want to know about) and focus on the longer articles, and the 特集 (special collections) that bring together a number of different perspectives on a single topic. From what I’ve seen, it seems like 8+ pages is the sweet spot for recycling vocabulary, and for developing an argument in depth and with rhetorical connections between the parts. 8 pages seems really short in some ways — on the other hand, it’s shockingly longer than almost anything I had to read while doing Japanese coursework in university. And it makes sense, too, to pick a single topic and read a book on that. And so, I will go forth in that direction.
One more thing for anyone who doubts the value of narrow reading.
The best thing I ever did for my Japanese reading ability was to read every single volume of a Boys Love novel series, 富士見二丁目交響楽団, which is about the romance between a violinist and a conductor of a community orchestra. I think I read about seventeen of them. And I am, like, 98% shameless about this and all I can say is — they worked. Can’t argue with success.
I think one of the biggest challenges for high-intermediate and up learners (let’s say JLPT N2 and beyond) is the vast amount of advanced vocabulary that has to be acquired that does not belong to the language of daily life, that is repeated rarely enough that it takes a massive amount of reading to learn from exposure, but that is not obscure enough to ignore. That’s what I mean by the “twilight” of vocabulary — it’s not all the way in the darkness, but it’s not all the way in the light, either.
A single page of reading the magazine Sekai gets me:
JLPT 1 words:
(These are certainly not the only JLPT-1 words in the passage, but the only ones I didn’t know)
Words marked as “priority” in Edict:
And a handful of words that weren’t marked as “priority,” though they’re not necessarily more obscure than the ones marked “priority.” Even with this number of unknown words, I was able to achieve 95% comprehension (maybe a little more once you factor in compounds that can be guessed from the component kanji), but clearly it’s not ideal to not know so many words.
So, what can you do about this huge amount of vocabulary?
1) Read a lot (with or without dictionary lookup in whatever amount you deem appropriate) and hope that the weight of exposure is enough to eventually learn from.
This is in some ways unsatisfactory just because I’m uncertain of the amount of reading that one would have to do to see those words consistently enough to learn them. That can be mitigated, surely — massive extensive reading of newspapers and current events magazines would probably help a lot.
2) Use an SRS to drill vocabulary.
And this is unsatisfactory in other ways. These words tend toward the abstract; it’s hard to recall their meanings in isolation, and tedious to make sentence cards (especially if I’m pulling them from Sekai magazine, with its long, convoluted sentences.)
Or is there some other alternative?
My first thought is to try to track down books relating to current events but aimed at a less educated audience than Sekai. The idea is that one could acquire some more sophisticated and advanced vocabulary without having to tackle quite as much of it.
I own a book by Ozaki Mariko called “Gendai nihon no shousetsu,” “The modern Japanese novel.” It’s in a series called ちくまプリマー新書, which features nonfiction on a wide variety of topics for a younger audience; “Gendai nihon no shousetsu” has furigana on a wide range of relatively common words, like 批評家、嘆き、欧米権、違和感、崩壊後、液晶、応募者, etc. I feel like these kinds of books could be useful in learning both topical vocabulary and some of the general abstract vocabulary of nonfiction in a low-key way.
There’s novels, too; in 2010 I read Miyabe Miyuki’s “Kasha,” which is a fantastic mystery dealing with a missing girl which eventually brings in various aspects of the consumer credit industry in Japan and how toxic they can be. I did learn some small amount of financial vocabulary from the book, but I’m not sure how practical it is to find excellent novels that relate to current political and social issues. (I highly recommend “Kasha” to advanced Japanese learners, and the English translation “All She Was Worth” to everyone else.)
For January’s Read More Or Die I finished three novels:
博士の愛した数式 / The Professor’s Beloved Equation by Ogawa Youko
I thought this novel about a housekeeper and a former math professor with a severe impairment to his short-term memory was going to be overly sentimental and sweet, but instead it was melancholy in a good way. The language was fairly easy, although there was some technical vocabulary related to both math and baseball.
狐笛（こてき）のかなた / The far side of the fox-flute by Uehashi Nahoko
This is a fantasy set in premodern Japan about a girl of mysterious parentage, an enchanted fox, and a young lord, all of whom are caught up in a battle between lords over territory rights. This has some predictable fantasy beats but also some nice surprises. I didn’t get into it as much as I got into another of Uehashi’s books, 獣の奏者, but I enjoyed it.
まほろ駅前多田便利軒 / Tada’s Do-It-All House by Miura Shion
I have been meaning to read this for a long time because it won a Naoki prize. I really loved this book, which is about a divorced guy who has a handyman shop in a fictional suburb of Tokyo, and a high school classmate who moves in with him. The jobs they take always end up taking very strange turns (they start out driving a kid home from juku and end up on the run from the yakuza…) but there is a lot of heart mixed in with the whimsy.
Right now I am reading 青年のための読書クラブ / The Reading Club For Youth by Sakuraba Kazuki. It’s a series of short stories all involving a reading club at an elite Catholic girls’ private school; the first one, for example, is about a plain but smart girl who plots to turn the tall new girl from Kansai into the idol of the school, in a mix of Cyrano de Bergerac and My Fair Lady. It both indulges and skewers some of the Maria-sama ga Miteru-ish tropes in a way that’s both funny and cruel.
I think it’s good to read short stories because you can get <em>something</em> from them even if you can’t get through the whole novel, but at the same time it’s easy to stall out when you get finished with one.
Recently I finished the dorama series Natsuko no Sake, which is from way back in 1994 and is about a young woman trying to fulfill her brother’s dream by making sake from a rare, hard-to-grow rice variety. I haven’t watched that many dorama, but I think it’s my favorite that I’ve seen. I find it’s pretty common for doramas to be either all about romance, which is not that interesting to me, or to be medical or police stories that I can’t understand that well. So in that aspect as well, I was able to enjoy it a lot. (More about the series).
I’m watching School! right now. The jury is still out on that one; I like Inspiring Teacher stories but sometimes the ideology can be pretty strong.
I’m trying to increase my vocabulary for politics and current events. Lately I’ve been transcribing news stories from Asahi News and adding vocabulary to Anki both from there and from Sekai, which is my favorite current events magazine because it’s the only one I can usually find at the local Kinokuniya that isn’t on the right-wing side of the spectrum. Some of the new vocabulary is specifically topical, like 議員, but there’s also a lot that’s just a more formal or intellectual register than what I’m used to from reading novels.
Here’s most of the first page of 「眠らない少女」 by Takahashi Katsuhiko. This is from 君が見つける物語：こわ～い話編. The 君が見つける物語 series is one that I recommend really highly to intermediate learners of Japanese. They’re anthologies of short stories specifically selected for teenagers, and with furigana on many of the more difficult kanji. I wasn’t too fond of the story selection in こわ～い話編, but I’m not a huge horror fan in the first place.
Again: green = grade 3 and under; orange = grade 6 and under; red = grade 8 and under. Everything higher is blue.
Kanji provided with furigana: 響く 鈴 小夜子 鍵 遅い 呆れる 駄目
Of these, 響く 鈴 and 呆れる are JLPT-2; the rest are easier.
Of the remaining red and orange kanji, all are JLPT 3 are below, except for 内側, which is in the “core 2000″ list and is super common though it’s not on the JLPT list.
So, this is another passage of fiction where the bulk of the kanji are very easy ones, and most of the harder kanji are very common words and/or have furigana on them.
I think one of the things that discouraged me most as a beginning student of Japanese was the idea that you needed to know 2000 kanji to even start to read. It was such an intimidating number, and such a long slog before you could do anything with the language!
Then I asked my sensei to bring me back a novel from Japan, because I wanted to see just how awful it would be and how long I had to go before I got to that point. It was a novel by Murakami Haruki, because he was the only contemporary Japanese author I’d heard of; and it was Norwegian Wood, because I liked the Beatles song.
Here is an excerpt from the book:
朝になると雨はあがっていた。 直子は僕に背中を向けて眠っていた。あるいは彼女は一睡もせずに起きていたのかもしれない。 起きているにせよ眠っているにせよ、彼女の唇は一切の言葉を失い、その体は凍りついたように固くなっていた。 僕は何度か話しかけてみたが返事はなかったし、体もピクリとも動かなかった。 僕は長いあいだじっと彼女の裸の肩を見ていたが、あきらめて起きることにした。
床にはレコード・ジャケットやグラスやワインの瓶や灰皿や、そんなものが昨夜のままに残っていた。 テーブルの上には形の崩れたバースデー・ケーキが半分残っていた。 まるでそこで突然時間が止まって動かなくなってしまったように見えた。僕は床の上にちりばったものを拾いあつめてかたづけ、流しで水を二杯飲んだ。 机の上には辞書とフランス語の動詞表があった。 机の前の壁にはカレンダーが貼ってあった。写真も絵も何もない数字だけのカレンダーだった。カレンダーは真っ白だった。 書きこみもなければ、しるしもなかった。
Kanji and compounds in green have all kanji grade-3 level or under; kanji and compounds in orange have all kanji grade-6 level or under; all higher-level kanji are marked in red.
At first glance, there’s a fair bit of red and orange. But let me pull out the orange words:
背中 失う 固い 灰皿 昨夜 残る 机 辞書 動詞
Three of these are listed as JLPT 3: 失う、机、動詞. All the rest are JLPT 4 or 5.
And now the red words:
僕 眠る 彼女 一睡 唇 凍りつく 裸 肩 床 瓶 崩れる 突然 杯 壁 貼る
Most of these are JLPT 3, with just a couple that are JLPT 2 — 裸, 唇. 杯 doesn’t appear in the JLPT word list on its own but 乾杯 is JLPT 2. 一睡 also doesn’t appear on the word list — but if you ignore it, you get, “Naoko was sleeping with her back turned to me. Or else, without _____, she was awake.” You lose very little.
So, if you are JLPT 3 level, then there’s no reason that you shouldn’t have almost all the vocabulary to get you through several paragraphs of this book. And it’s written like this all the way — Murakami is a guy with a very American style, and in this book at least it comes out as colloquial, simple, and easy to read. (Do not try this with Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.)
And, as a student with about a JLPT 3 level and a knowledge of 400-500 kanji, I found Norwegian Wood to be, not an easy read, but a challenging and enjoyable one — not one so impossible as I had been led to believe!
This is one of the reasons I believe that intermediate learners of Japanese would do better to focus on vocabulary and extensive reading than on massive knowledge of kanji. Once you can dip your toes into reading, everything gets exciting and great things can happen. Why put it off?
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