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5 Must-Read Japanese Novels For Japanese Learners

05/15/2022

After learning the Japanese language for a few years, you should be pretty darn capable of making conversation, deciphering a good number of kanji, and you’ve no doubt developed an eccentric little vocabulary base from those hours and hours of anime and drama you’ve logged.

Yet somehow, even though a burst of ambition caused you to go online, order a real Japanese novel and tenaciously devour the first page…

It’s currently collecting dust on your shelf. I can totally relate to this. Those novels can be long. But worry not, as I have some quick and snappy little novellas to finally introduce you to the wonderful world of Japanese novels!

1. 「神様」(かみさま) by 川上 弘美 (かわかみ ひろみ)

English: “God of Bears” by Hiromi Kawakami

Page Count: 203

This is just about the most adorable story on the list. And surprisingly profound. It begins when a girl is invited out for a walk by a bear. Yes—a real bear. He just moved into her apartment complex. And the rest of the story is all the quirky, dreamy sort of fun you’re imagining.

The language in here is pretty simple, although a few words might not be heard in everyday conversation. The tone throughout, however, should make for a cozy, non-threatening read.

2. 「天国の本屋」(てんごくの ほんや) by 松久淳 (まつひさ あつし)

English: “Heaven’s Bookstore” by Atsushi Matsuhisa

Page Count: 119

Inexplicably, a boy finds himself employed at a bookstore in…ahem…Heaven. He’s assumed the role of substitute manager, and he’s got a new coworker with an intriguing past herself. What are they doing there? How did they get there? Are they dead? Don’t you just need to find out right now?!

The language here is pretty conversational, so it won’t be too much of a stretch to tackle a few pages!

3. 「時をかける少女」(ときを かける しょうじょ) by 筒井康隆 (つつい やすたか)

English: “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” by Yasutaka Tsutsui

Page Count: 229

If you’re coming to me with a rich mosaic of anime-watching under your belt, I’m thinking you might know 時をかける少女 from the anime movie of the same name. It’s about a bratty but pretty average female high-school student named Makoto who suddenly finds she has the ability to jump through time. It’s beautiful, tragic and oddly nostalgic. However—the book tells the story of Makoto’s aunt who experienced a mysteriously similar phenomenon when she was in high school. Part Sci-Fi (or “SF,” as Japanese speakers say), part love story, part slice-of-life…you’ll just love this.

As a lot of the story takes place around her high school and after school at home, our narrator’s diction is pretty simple. You’ll be picking up words you can use in an everyday context (and through an adorable love story to boot!).

4. 「神の子どもたちはみな踊る」(かみの こどもたちは みな おどる) by 村上春樹 (むらかみ はるき)

English: “After The Quake” by Haruki Murakami

Page Count: 237

I know you were just waiting for his name to pop up on the list, but this collection of six stories is a little out-of-character for our dear surrealist. This one’s for our ambitious, deeply curious friends who’d like to learn more about the Japanese mind through an examination of history and trauma. Set at the time of the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the infamous Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway—these stories follow several characters as they react to and attempt to deal with the various effects that these incidents have on each of their lives.

As a Japanese reader mentioned on a book review forum, this one might be easier to read than Murakami’s other (highly surrealist) works, because of the more colloquial tone of the everyday people dealing with a literal “shaking up” of their worlds.

5. 「キッチン」(きっちん) by 吉本ばなな (よしもと ばなな)

English: “Kitchen” by Banana Yoshimoto

Page Count: 197

Last but certainly not least, the other name you expected to see on the list. The first of two short stories in Yoshimoto’s book (a bonus if you’re looking to read more right away!), 「キッチン」follows Mikage Sakurai just after the death of the grandparents who raised her. Finding herself alone in the house she grew up in, without the warmth and companionship of her guardians, suddenly Yuichi—a young acquaintance of her grandmother’s—appears. He and his transgender mother’s presence is soothing to Mikage…

Except for a few fancy words describing Mikage’s soul-crushing grief, the language in this book is again quite domestically-focused. You’ll find reading this book is quite a calming endeavor…grab a cup of tea on a rainy day!


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