My Japanese Self-Study Reading List

I am guilty of gross Murakami-centrism. Despite the fact that I have read a moderate amount of Japanese literature in translation, in Japanese I have not ventured much beyond Murakami’s catalog other than a few short stories and a couple novels here and there.

I’ve known about my deficiency for some time now and have been actively trying to correct it. Whenever I have the chance to talk literature with a Japanese person, I ask them what their favorite book is. This has helped me accumulate a number of books to read, some of which I’ve actually started on.

With my return to the U.S. imminent, I’ve packed up all the reading material I’ve accumulated over the past five years and (after trimming the selection a bit) sent everything home. I won’t be studying Japanese or Japanese literature at graduate school, but I’m still determined to continue my study of both on my own.

Because it will be difficult for me to get my hands on Japanese reading material, I put together a reading list with a little help from friends. In addition to the Japanese people I’ve had a chance to talk to, I asked some foreign friends to recommend material I was unlikely to have read. They did an amazing job. I asked the guys at Néojaponisme along with frequent contributor Sgt. Tanuki for recommendations from different eras – pre-Edo, Edo and post-Edo. I had a feeling that some of the crew at Mutantfrog Travelogue had read in areas outside my own specialty, so I asked them for general recs and was pleased with their suggestions. At the end I added a few of my own choices along with the books recommended by Japanese friends. So over the next 2-3 years, this will be the core of my reading list.

Do you have any suggestions? If you could only recommend one Japanese book (preferably something I haven’t read) what would it be?


Matt Treyvaud (pre-Edo):

Since I was assigned “pre-Edo,” I’m probably technically obliged to stick to the holy trilogy of Kojiki, Man’yō shū, Genji. I would like to note that all three of these reward casual browsing, and you can enjoy them just fine that way, without dedicating your 30s to reading them all the way through in the original, but it seems kind of pointless to recommend books everyone already knows about. So I’m going to recommend a personal favorite among the lesser-known pre-Edo works: the Kangin shū 閑吟集.

The Kangin shū is a loosely organized anthology of popular songs compiled in the 16th century by a flute-playing hermit (世捨て人). There are bawdy songs and pastoral songs, flip nihilism and sarcastic piety, all in a huge grab-bag of meters and language ranging from stately kanbun to rustic 5/7 lines ending in .

Close runner-up: Nifonno cotoba to historia uo narai xiran to fossuru fito no tameni xeva ni yavaraguetaru Feiqe no monogatari, a.k.a. the Jesuit edition of the Heike monogatari 平家物語. The content itself isn’t particularly special, but reading it in contemporary romanization is: it brings into the sphere of your personal experience many oft-overlooked facts about the history of Japanese and even Japan itself.

Sgt. Tanuki (Edo):

I’m going to cheat. If you’re really going to pick one thing from the Edo period to struggle through in Japanese, I think it really has to be Bashō 芭蕉’s Oku no hosomichi 奥の細道 (Narrow Road to Take Your Pick: A Far Province, The Interior, The Deep North, “Oku”). It’s been translated by everybody and her brother (hell, even I gave it a shot), but there’s just nothing like grappling with his prose and poetry in the original. If there’s anything that’ll prove the old saw that poetry is what’s lost in the translation, it’s this.

But you don’t need me to tell you about Bashō, so that’s not my pick. I’m going to recommend a book I haven’t even finished yet, but that I’m enjoying the bejeezus out of. That’s Edo bakemono sōshi (江戸化物草紙) by Adam Kabat (アダム・カバット) (from 小学館). This is a book of early 19th century kibyōshi, mostly by Jippensha Ikku (十返舎一九). Ikku’s the guy who wrote Shank’s Mare (a.k.a. Tōkaidōchū hizakurige (東海道中膝栗毛), also one of the books I’d take with me if I was exiled to Sado). Kibyōshi were a kind of comic book, adult-oriented (meaning sophisticated, not salacious, although they could be that, too), popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In the last few years there’s been a lot written about these in English – and this is going to seem pretty incestuous, because the leader in this movement was my grad-school advisor at A School Which Shall Not Be Named, somebody you probably know, too.

But the ones Kabat takes up haven’t been translated, and that’s a shame, because they’re just awesome. They’re part of the late-Edo fad for monsters, a fad that saw both the authentically shocking horror of Yotsuya kaidan (四谷怪談) and the kooky, funny monsters that populate these comix. Both of which feed straight into modern horror and humor manga. I mean, this is where my boy Mizuki Shigeru (水木しげる) got all his shit from.

Kabat’s editing is careful and helpful – he transliterates all the squigglies, and explains everything in modern Japanese, too – and of course part of the fun of the book is rooting for the gaijin who did all this work. But mainly the stories are cute, the illustrations are winning, and the whole package is just a priceless view into the comic imagination of the early 19th century. Very entertaining.

David Marx (post-Edo):
One book of interest is Sōkan no shakaishi (創刊の社会史) by Kōji Namba (難波功士) which looks at social trends through the publication of magazines. It’s a good intro to the history of Japanese youth and consumer culture, and shows why magazines are so important to both.



I enjoyed the Onmyōji (陰陽師) novel series by Baku Yumemakura (夢枕獏), which is basically historical fantasy with a bit of a Sherlock Homes feel to it, based on the legends of the historical onmyōji Abe no Seimei. I’m sure you’re at least familiar with the film or manga versions, but I really liked the prose versions. Having lived in Kyoto for several years I’m actually very familiar with all the Heiankyo references and found it pretty easy to read, but as a Tokyo resident you may find that you need to read it with Wikipedia handy.


1940-nen taisei (1940年体制) by Yukio Noguchi (野口幸雄) is a “pop economics” book about how the structure of many Japanese institutions we know today – regional newspapers, banks, labor practices, etc. – are largely a product of the wartime economy. A very interesting take from a former finance ministry bureaucrat.

My additions to the list:

Mahoro ekimae Tada benriken (まほろ駅前多田便利軒) is a novel written by Shion Mitsuura (三浦しおん) who I don’t know very much about. She regularly gets published and serialized in major magazines, but the photo on the cover was what first drew me to the book. The librarian at the junior high school in Nishiaizu always put her favorite books out on display, and this one caught my eye. Eventually I picked up a copy for cheap at Book OFF, but I still haven’t gotten around to reading it. It may be a little superficial to judge a book by it’s cover, but sometimes books that look good end up being a nice find. Speaking of which…

I introduced Kōhī mō ippai (コーヒーもう一杯) by Naoto Yamakawa (山川直人) last year, but I still haven’t found the time to read Volume 5 (the final volume) yet, so I included it in one of the boxes I sent back. I love the visual texture of Yamakawa’s drawings; they match perfectly with the tone of the stories, which is always very mellow and nostalgic. Reading this manga is like slowly immersing yourself in a 45C bath. Not any old bath, but an old-school aluminum tub on the second floor of a wooden building that rattles whenever a train goes by. And when you get out of the bath, you have a cold jar of coffee-flavored milk to cool yourself down. I found this manga randomly at Tsutaya before boarding a flight from Fukushima to Osaka. I was looking for SOIL, another serial published by Beam Comics, but they didn’t have the latest volume, so I picked this one instead.

Tōkaidō chintara tabi (東海道ちんたら旅) is a random book that I came across when walking home from Oimachi one rainy evening. I was walking by the Nikon factory and happened to turn my head to the left just as I passed the book. It was absolutely soaked, but I rescued it and let it dry out. It’s still in readable condition and looks like a set of travel stories written by Shōichi Ozawa (小沢昭一) and Shintarō Miyakoshi (宮腰太郎).

And finally for recommendations from Japanese friends. I haven’t read most of these, so the stories of how I met these people are probably more interesting than a summary of the books themselves. If you know anything about these books, let me know what you think.

I made friends with a Japanese guy who works at a translation company in Tokyo. When we met at a beer bar, he was amazed that I was interested in Thelonious Monk. He’s a good bit older than me, but between Monk, other music and literature, we had enough in common to become pretty good friends. He loves Jazz and the Beat poets, so much so that he ran off to India at some point in his 20s, inspired by Alan Ginsberg. When I asked about his favorite Japanese author, he quickly recommended Shichirō Fukuzawa (深沢七郎). “He writes amazing sentences,” he said. He recommended Narayama bushikō (楢山節孝), for which Fukazawa won the first Chūōkōron Prize in 1956. So far I’ve read the first two stories, including the title story, but I need to go back and read it more closely and finish the other stories in the collection.

Fukazawa is also famous for Furyū mutan (風流夢譚), which you can read more about over at Tokyo Damage Report. The work satires a radical takeover. During the takeover, the royal family is beheaded in front of a crowd. The story outraged conservatives, and one even attacked (UPDATE) the editor of Chūōkōron at his house (UPDATE), killing a maid and injuring his wife. Fukazawa was forced into hiding. Tokyo Damage Report has a translation of the story and a link to the Japanese original.

Two years ago I went with my roommate to his house for New Year’s dinner. It was the 2nd of January, not exactly New Year’s Day, but the food wasn’t exactly おせち料理: His dad is from Fukui, so they always serve up giant crabs as the appetizers. One of the guests was a slightly hefty Japanese guy with long, unkempt gray hair. He seemed to make a living mostly by tutoring high school and junior high school students, but he admired Albert Einstein (even taking fashion tips from him; hence, the hair) and fancied himself an academic in general. I went again this year with my brothers, and he not only questioned each of them about their respective fields of interest (biology, sculpture) but also managed to carry on decent conversations about both topics. His recommendation was Ao-oni no fundoshi o arau onna (青鬼の褌を洗う女) by Ango Sakaguchi (坂口安吾). A couple days later, extremely hungover after nomi-hoe-down action in Shimokitazawa, I walked an hour and a half from my apartment to Tonki Tonkatsu in Meguro to have 初カツ – the first tonkatsu of the New Year. Along the way I passed the Book OFF in Gotanda. I looked for Sakaguchi but could only find the collection of short stories Hakuchi (白痴). I was so out of it that I didn’t realize 青鬼の褌を洗う女 was included in the collection. The title (“The Woman who Washes the Blue Oni’s Loincloth”) makes the story sound intriguing, so I’m looking forward to reading this. No spoilers!

When I worked as a project manager for a translation company, I only got to go to one real enkai with clients. The only reason I was invited was that the client was supposed to be bringing its English native staff member – thus, the proliferation of foreigners. Sadly, the guy had too much work and wasn’t able to make it. That left me, the Japanese coordinator and the Syatch (which is what we call the 社長) meeting with the Japanese head of translation (who drank like seven beers and then went back to work) and a higher-up producer, I think, who had studied in Wisconsin and even been engaged to an American woman. For some reason it didn’t work out. His English was great, as you can expect, and he had even been to New Orleans during his stay in the U.S. (As we were leaving he asked me about the “titty bars” – that’s how good his English was.) He asked me about my interest in Japan, and as always I mentioned Murakami as the main reason I started studying the language. When I had the chance, I asked him who his favorite author was. He answered Seichō Matsumoto (松本清張). I can’t remember what novel he recommended or why, but on the way to New Year’s dinner this past January, I found Hansei no ki (半生の記) at the station bookstore while I was waiting for my roommate. I picked it because it was the shortest of his books and also because it’s a collection of stories. I think it’s nonfiction, or at least 私小説, which blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction.

Reading Theory – Notes Increase Retention

When I read Books 1 and 2 of 1Q84, I stormed through them, reading an average of 55 pages a day. I then promptly fell ill and did not venture far beyond the edges of my futon for the next week. (Belated apologies to some of the commenters who commented on that first post – I stopped responding once I got sick.) When I went to write my review of the book, I had a hard time remembering what had happened and an even more difficult time locating passages I wanted to quote. Doh.

For Book 3, I’m reading at a much more leisurely pace. I’m only on page 348 but have been reading for nearly three weeks, which comes to 16 pages a day. One reason I’ve been reading more slowly is that I’ve been writing more notes. Take a look:

I’m using a technique a graduate student recommended to me when I was writing my senior thesis. At the time I was complaining that it felt like Japanese was going in through my eyes and straight out the back of my head – I didn’t feel like I was retaining anything. He suggested writing little notes above paragraphs to summarize the content. They don’t have to be extensive or detailed, but even a little summary of what is happening can help you 1) make sure you are paying attention while you read, 2) make sure you are understanding what you read and 3) find passages later when you are flipping back through.

If you find an important passage or important line, you can write something more detailed. Fortunately I did that for Book 1 and 2, so I had some things to talk about in my review. For Book 3, I’ve been notating it far more extensively, so it should be much easier for me to remember later and write about.

On Translation and Me

I often get questions from aspiring translators about what kind of job I have and how to break into the translation industry, so I thought I’d write a FAQ-style post answering these questions once and for all. If there is anything else you are curious about, feel free to leave a question in the comments.

Q: What exactly do you do?
A: I am a project manager at a translation company in Tokyo.

Q: What is a project manager?
A: A project manager coordinates freelance translators to complete large translation projects. When we receive a translation job from a client, I work with the Japanese coordinators in my office to set up a delivery date. Then I contact freelancers and send them the material for translation if they are available. When they complete the translation, I do a close comparison of the source text and the target text and make corrections and revisions as necessary. I leave comments in Japanese for the client company if I have any questions. The Japanese coordinators then check my comments, take a final look at the file, and submit it to the client company.

You can read more about project management at the blog Essential Project Management.

Q: Wait, aren’t you a video game translator or something? You mention video games a lot.
A: Kind of…but not really. First of all, if I’m anything, it’s a video game project manager (see above). Several of our clients are video game companies, but they send us a wide variety of material, only some of which is actual video games. I check financial documents, proposals, business correspondence, video game dialogue, video game instruction manuals, iPhone apps, and more. We have clients outside of the game industry as well.

Q: So you don’t actually do any translation yourself?
A: For the most part, no. If a project is small enough or on a rush schedule, we sometimes do the translation in-house, but there is always another English native who checks the finished product before delivery.

Q: How much material do you handle every day?
A: Ideally I check 5000 Japanese characters a day (roughly 2500 English words), but this fluctuates and often we handle significantly more than 5000 characters. When I was working on a major project last summer, I was checking up to and over 10,000 characters a day (with the assistance of several hours of overtime).

Q: How much material do your translators translate every day?
A: This really depends on the material, type of file formatting, and the individual translator, but it ranges anywhere from 2500 to 5000 Japanese characters. 3500 to 4000 is probably the average amount.

Q: How did you get the job?
A: I responded to an ad in the Japan Times. I was very lucky.

Q: What do you think was the most important preparation for your job?
A: Reading. If you want any kind of job in translation, whether it’s a project manager position or a freelance translator job, you need to have the endurance to read large quantities of Japanese text and also the experience to understand most of the material without using a dictionary.

The best way to develop these abilities is to read for long periods of time. Read newspapers, novels, magazines, manga, blogs, websites – any material that keeps you interested. Practice reading for an hour, two hours, half a day, a whole day. Look up new words and write them in a notebook. I still do this.

Q: Wait, you don’t use a dictionary?
A: No, I use a dictionary when I need to, but I don’t have time to look up every word. Or even every other word.

Q: Did you really practice reading all day long?
A: Hell yeah. During the summer of 2004, I went to the library every day and read Kafka on the Shore in Japanese. I read from about nine in the morning to four or five in the afternoon with a one hour break for lunch. It took me about a month to finish the first half of the novel, but it was great practice. Too bad the book wasn’t better.

I’ve also been known to read for entire weekends.

Q: Is there anything you wish you would’ve done to prepare for your job?
A: I wish I would have played more video games in Japanese. One of my coworkers is Japanese-Canadian. He grew up in Canada, and besides speaking Japanese with his parents, a good portion of his exposure to Japanese was in the form of video games. He is a walking dictionary of video game terms. He hasn’t played every game ever made, but he is very familiar with the language used in video games and what that language means. Playing English video games will help you develop a familiarity with terminology and style (and the content of the titles themselves), but playing Japanese video games will actually teach you the language.

Q: How do I get a job as a project manager?
A: I have no idea. Look around for companies on the Internet and send off resumes and cover letters. Join the Google Group for Japanese translation – sometimes jobs get posted there. Those are my best suggestions.

Q: How do I get a job as a freelance translator?
A: Another question I can’t really answer. I can tell you how my company hires freelancers. We always accept resumes, and generally we send prospective translators a translation trial. If the trial is good enough, we add them to our list of translators, but you have to be particularly good to break into our group of regulars.

So I guess the answer is send out resumes and emails to as many translation companies as possible. Get in touch with the project managers who work at the companies. Get registered on their list. Stay in touch with them but don’t be annoying, and don’t ever come across as entitled, no matter how good of a translator you are.

Q: What else should good freelancers do?
A: Respond to emails promptly, especially if project managers are inquiring about availability. They will love you. Check in with project managers on Friday afternoons – clients often send us projects on Friday and we have to scramble to find translators before we take off for the weekend. If I was freelancing in the U.S., I might even make an effort to wake up early on Friday morning and check my mail.

Q: Wait a second. Freelancers work on the weekend?
A: Hell yeah. Project managers count on freelancers to speed up projects by working over the weekend. These days don’t get included in the number of business days we have to finish projects, so it gives us more time or lets us offer a faster delivery date to clients.

Also, one freelancer I met said that when you freelance, you pretty much take any work you can get. You’re on your own clock, and any time you aren’t translating, you’re missing an opportunity to make money. The lack of a guaranteed monthly wage must be a strong motivator.

Q: What do you think the most important part of the translation process is?
A: Revision. Understanding the Japanese is really only a third of the work. Maybe even less than that. The other part of the process is expressing the Japanese in natural English. No matter how good your Japanese is, unless you can write a decent English sentence and have a good range of expression, you won’t find any work as a translator.

I emphasize revision because it gives you the opportunity to look at the English text independently of the Japanese. When you’re reading your translation, you should be asking yourself – Does this make any sense? Could anything be clearer? Could anything be more natural? Are there any sentences that are passive that could be active? What impression will people have when they read this?

Q: Tell us a story about a good translator.
A: One of the best translators I work with loves playing games and translating them. He’s played just about every game out there, and if he hasn’t played it, he’s willing to do the research to figure it out. He even does fansubs of games on his own time.

Last summer I was coordinating a major video game. The client sent us the main script, which was enormous. I think it was over 100,000 characters. Because they wanted a quicker delivery, we split the script between two translators. We had one translate the dialogue and another translate the ト書き (とがき), which is basically the “stage direction” for the dialogue. I sent this guy the ト書き. He was so into the game and the series, though, that he went through the dialogue and pulled all the references from the scripts of previous games without me asking for anything. I then forwarded on the notes to the dialogue translator. It saved me and the other translator a lot of time and ensured that the game would be accurate. Lots of respect for this translator.

Q: Tell us a story about a bad translator.
A: We got a small job for a video game proposal at some point last spring. It was only 3000 or 4000 characters, which is a nice volume to send new recruits. I sent it to a guy who had recently passed our trial. When he sent it back to me, there were still Japanese commas and parentheses in the Powerpoint file (全角 text that he hadn’t taken the time to delete completely, the lazy bastard) and he clearly hadn’t taken the time to revise or even think about his translations, so I had to rewrite the whole thing. (On a side note, there were some places where he clearly hadn’t understood the Japanese. If you ever can’t understand the Japanese, leave a note for the project manager. We can fix it, but it helps us if you mark the places where you were unsure. Even our top translators do this – it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Leaving a possible alternative translation in the comments is also helpful, but you shouldn’t be doing it too often.) I barely finished in time. The good news is that the proposal got picked up and we had the opportunity to translate the actual game itself. No one in my office has sent this translator another project.

The moral of these two stories is this: take advantage of any opportunity you are given. If a company gives you a chance to do some actual work, knock it out of the park. Show them that you’ve done the research and really ironed out your English. And don’t be afraid to step away from the Japanese when you’re translating for video games – they call it “localization” instead of “translation” for a reason.

Don’t forget that I do not recommend games translation. Go learn how to translate patents or economics stuff. It’s much easier and will make you a lot more money.

Review – コーヒーもう一杯 (One More Cup of Coffee)

The Japan Times has a short profile/interview of How to Japonese/me online today! Apparently they will be publishing it in the actual newspaper on Wednesday.

In the interview, one of the questions they ask is what Japanese books are good to read in order to improve spoken Japanese. Well, Murakami’s great and easy to read, of course, but I realized that manga are probably better than fiction since you are basically reading a script with visual cues.

One of my favorite manga is Naoto Yamakawa‘s 『コーヒーもう一杯』 published by Enterbrain. Yamakawa writes short coffee-themed manga and publishes one story a month in 月刊コミックビーム. The stories get collected into annual volumes which he intersperses with short prose poem type stories, also coffee-themed. He begins his first volume with one of these, explaining the title of the collection:

“One More Cup of Coffee” is the title of a song from Bob Dylan’s 1976 album Desire.
I started listening to Bob Dylan when I was a high school student, always listened to him after that, and listen to him even to this day.
When I first heard him I thought, “What the hell is this?” But as I kept listening, I got into the habit of listening to him and really came to like his music.
To give you an idea of how much I like him, sometimes I get on a train, see his name on a hanging advertisement, and get so surprised I almost lose my shit.
But when I look closer it doesn’t say Bob Dylan; it says things like volunteer (ボランティア) or body line (ボディ・ライン).
Beyond the title, this manga has no connection with Bob Dylan, but there are many pages I drew while listening to Bob Dylan.

The introduction perfectly captures the feel of the collection – coffee, like Bob Dylan’s music, is something that might take time to get used to, but once you start to enjoy it, it’s hard to live without. And because coffee is a daily ritual, it ends up being strongly connected to other experiences: people you went to coffee with, conversations shared over coffee, the intricate ritual of brewing coffee. The collection diagrams coffee as a social experience in modern Japan.

Brewing coffee is the theme of the first story of the collection:

But it’s also a love story. The young man making coffee in the image teaches the other man how to make coffee, which puzzles him since he already taught him how when working as his assistant. Through the flashbacks we realize that the young man Mameta (豆太; Yamakawa often uses 豆 in his names as a joke, since it’s the character for “bean”) had a crush on Aoyama’s girlfriend Motsumi. At the end of the story after the two have coffee, Mameta walks Aoyama to a cigarette vending machine where they buy Hope cigarettes, and Aoyama confesses that he’s split with Motsumi. Mameta returns to his small apartment, brews another batch of coffee and sits down to process everything that happened while enjoying a cup:

Yamakawa’s unique, warm drawing style is perfectly suited to the content. The stories are all sort of sad, strange and even nostalgic, but it’s a nostalgia for the present day – Yamakawa’s portraits of urban Japan are so romantic that they approach simulacra. He loves the coffee shops:


Used bookstores:




And streets of Japanese cities:


The illustrations in this series are a refreshing change from the kind of manga that gets translated and shipped abroad. I’ll take the back alleys of Shinagawa-ku over the bright lights of Shibuya any day of the week. I do frequent Dry Dock, after all, which I think is the closest I’ve come to a コーヒーもう一杯-esque location in the flesh.

I discovered the series while hunting for manga to read on a flight. I was actually looking for SOIL, also published by Enterbrain, but since they didn’t have it, I went for コーヒーもう一杯, and I’m sure glad I did. It’s perfect plane flight or train ride manga: the stories are short and manageable, fun to read, and beautiful to look at. Highly recommended.

Bonus link! Yamakawa has his own blog, through which I discovered that Volume 5 of コーヒーもう一杯 is the final volume. Probably for the best. All of the stories are good, but Volume 1 was by far the strongest.

Reading Strategies – Skimming and Kanji Compounds

By my third year of Japanese study, my classmates and I had gotten to the point where we could express a lot of basic ideas, but for whatever reason – probably class chemistry more than anything – we were all really quiet. Everyone was hesitant to take a chance and speak up. So the professor implemented a participation grade, probably one of the cleverest techniques any of my Japanese teachers ever used. This same teacher also emphasized storytelling (through 接続詞), relaying information (〜そうです), and skimming (速読). It was a landmark year in my study of the language. Really gave me a solid foundation.

I think the skimming exercises were especially effective. Someone (one of the higher up professors?) had done research showing that skimming was just as valuable if not more valuable than slogging through passages looking up the definition for every word. Several times a week, she would hand us a slip of paper with a Japanese newspaper article on it. First she gave us five seconds or so to look at the headline and we would take a minute to talk about the topic of the article. We made guesses about the content, and the professor asked us to explain why. Then she gave us 30 seconds to look at the first few paragraphs of the article. We would kind of desperately run our eyes over the squiggles, looking for X月XX日, X氏, and other hints. The she asked us machine-gun style the who what where when of the article. And that was it. We never went into much more depth than that. The exercise was predicated on the idea that short, fast repetitions are important to get your reading up to speed.

However, skimming is really only effective once you have a basic grasp of kanji and compounds. We must have known 750 kanji at least, maybe even closer to 1000, but knowing how the kanji work in compounds was even more important. This same teacher drilled us on the different categories of compounds. I think there were five categories. Here’s a brief rundown of the ones I can remember:

Synonyms and Antonyms – compounds in this category are two kanji with similar meaning or opposite meaning lined up together.

早速 (さっそく) – fast + fast = right away!
重複 (ちょうふく) – overlap + multiple = redundant (unsure if this isn’t in the Verb + DO category which is outlined below)
姉妹 (しまい) – older sister + younger sister = sister
兄弟 (きょうだい) – older brother + younger brother = brother
変化 (へんか) – change + change = change

上下 (じょうげ) – up + down = up and down
左右 (さゆう) – left + right = left and right
和英 (わえい) – Japanese + English = Japanese to English
英和 (えいわ) – English + Japanese = English to Japanese
売買 (ばいばい) – sell + buy = buying and selling
攻防 (こうぼう) – attack + defense = attack and defense

Prefix + Kanji – the kanji in these compounds all have prefixes that modify the other character. 非, 無, and 不 are the obvious negatives ones. There must be some positive ones…超 comes to mind, but I can’t think of any two-character compounds.

無職 (むしょく) – no + work = unemployed
無色 (むしょく) – no + color = colorless
無教 (むきょう) – no + faith = atheist
不良 (ふりょう) – un + good = bad
非常 (ひじょう) – non + normal = abnormal/unusual/emergency
超能力 (ちょうのうりょく) – extremely + ability = superpower/ESP

Adjective + Noun – in this category, the first kanji modifies the second kanji, forming a larger compound noun.

朗報 (ろうほう) – cheerful + information = good news
朝食 (ちょうしょく) – morning + food = breakfast
残金 (ざんきん) – remain + money = balance/remaining money
近所 (きんじょ) – near + place = neighborhood
笑顔 (えがお) – smile + face = smiling face

Adverb + Verb – in this category, too, the first character modifies the second, but this time it modifies the way the verb is performed.

速読 (そくどく) – fast + read = read quickly/skim
朗読 (ろうどく) – clear/cheerful + read = read out loud
悪化 (あっか) – bad + change = get worse
強化 (きょうか) – strong + change = make stronger/fortify/enhance/reinforce

Verb + Direct Object – these kanji are Chinese in origin, I think, so they come in the Chinese grammatical order, the second kanji being the direct object of the first, which is a verb.

上京 (じょうきょう) – go up + capital = go to the capital
帰国 (きこく) – return + country = return home/repatriate
送金 (そうきん) – send + money = send money
回想 (かいそう) – spin + thought = recall/flashback
消火 (しょうか) – erase + fire = extinguish
返品 (へんぴん) – give back + item = return something

Not every compound will fit into these categories, but thinking about kanji this way will often give you an advantage when you encounter a new compound made of familiar parts. So go on! Go out there and get reps! Skimming is all well and good, but the goal is to build up endurance and recognition so that you can tackle longer material.

Here’s Why

A few weeks ago, Caught Red-handed wondered why he has so much trouble learning katakana. He and his commenters hint at some of the problems – lack of exposure being the main culprit – but I don’t think anyone hit at the central issue: it’s naive to assume that katakana words should be easy to learn just because they are phonetic.

The key thing to realize is that when you read a language fluently, you never read the individual parts of words. Think about it in English for a second. When you look at the word “when,” you aren’t thinking “OK, double-u and silent h makes a ‘we’ sound. Ends with ‘n,’ so it’s pronounced ‘wen.’” You recognize it as its own entity and you have a pronunciation and meaning associated with the set of squiggles that take the shape of “when” – a gestalt.

Sure, katakana make it slightly easier than English because you can read out the, more or less, exact pronunciation if you slow down, but when you read, I’m willing to be that you brain can’t differentiate between a katakana word, an English word or a kanji compound – to your brain they are all just arbitrary pictograms.

This provides the answer to the question: start treating katakana words more like kanji compounds and you’ll have more success. If you treat them like a set of phonetic characters to be mastered in the first few months of language study, they will bite you in the ass. If you treat them like real words – gestalt made of random lines and curves – then you’ll have no problem. Rather than studying them individually part by part, it’s important to start seeing them as groups of characters that form unified entities.

Honestly, I wish I had realized this earlier. I went through the exact same troubles with katakana, and unfortunately for me, the only cure has been time. With the advent of SRS programs, it would be easy to start a separate file for katakana words, quiz the hell out of yourself and end up a master in no time.

(On a side note, I think a lot of people kind of ignore katakana once they’ve learned a word as a gestalt. One of my professors jumped on everyone in my class for mispronouncing ボタン. I think we were all saying something closer to ブタン. Make sure you’re taking the time to hit every mora. Not only will it improve your pronunciation, it’s also fun to say foreign words in a super Japanese accent. I love over-exaggerating loanwords. A good example is one of Murakami’s choice whiskies – カティーサーク. Make sure to drag out that long ア sound in the サーク.)

(And, yes, that word gestalt is awesome and should be used whenever possible.)

Just Read It

(Updated with links to books on Amazon Japan because I was lazy on Friday. Used copies of 夜のくもざる going for 1 yen!)

I’ve read 450+ Japanese pages over the past week, probably more than double the amount I read over the previous two months, and I can feel a tangible improvement in my spoken Japanese. Yes, you read that correctly. Spoken Japanese. I’m sure that my reading abilities have gone up, which makes sense, but over the last few days I’ve also noticed that phrases and patterns seem to come to me more quickly than they did last week. A couple of thoughts about this phenomenon and reading in general:

– At some point you have to make the leap. Once you have some kanji under your belt, you need to put down the dictionary and start reading for length of time and volume rather than complete understanding. Why length of time? You need to train your eyeballs to read vertically. When you first start reading vertically, you’ll actually be zig-zagging slightly to the left and right as you take in the characters. One of my Japanese teachers said this is why your eyes get tired more quickly at first. The more time you spend reading, the faster your eyes will train themselves to recognize kanji without straying from the invisible center line. Why volume? It builds confidence. It’s important to feel like you’re making progress with reading. This doesn’t mean that you should stop looking up words (definitely look them up if it’s very important), but if you can get most of the meaning without looking up a word, then you can skip it. (This is, by the way, exactly what we all do in our native languages – context provides great usage examples and a lot of meaning.)

– As for why reading helps improve spoken Japanese, I’m not exactly sure. I like to think it’s because, magically, the grammar patterns are imprinted on my brain pudding, enabling it to function more naturally in Japanese. I’m sure this is the case to a certain extent. Perhaps the net effect of reading on speaking varies by person depending on how much they vocalize internally as they read. I don’t think I vocalize much at all (constantly skip over readings I understand but don’t know, probably swallow patterns in big chunks rather than word by word), but I still feel better about my spoken Japanese than I have in weeks. Mmm…brain pudding.

– There are limitations to this approach: for whatever reason my conversation topics are limited to religious cults, the NHK collection man, Czech classical music, and gin and tonics.

– Kanji shouldn’t be studied. Just keep reading and get used to them. Matt explains far more articulately here.

– Start with shorter material and work your way up to the big guns. If you try to start reading with Wind-up Bird Chronicle (or the Japanese translation of Pynchon’s V…I actually did look briefly at the translation before realizing I wasn’t going to pay $60 for a book that was difficult in English), you are setting yourself up for defeat. Start with some short stories. One of the best collections for beginners is Murakami’s 『夜のくもざる』(“Night of the Spider Monkey”), which is a collection of “super-short stories” (超短編小説). Each story is only 2-3 pages long, so you can get that “Whew, I finished reading” feeling without going for hours and hours. The one downside of this collection is that all the stories are weird. Like, super weird. Kaori Ekuni has a couple short story collections that might be good for first-time readers, one of which has the funny English title on the book “It’s not safe or suitable to swim” (『泳ぐのに、安全でも適切でもありません』). Anyone know any other good reads for beginners?

– In the end, though, nothing is as satisfying as reading a full length novel. Or at least a nice big fat story like an Akutagawa Prize winner. The first book I ever read from start to finish in Japanese was 『蹴りたい背中』(“The Back I Want to Kick”) by Risa Wataya who won the prize in 2004 when she was 18. Shortly thereafter I read 『蛇にピアス』 (“Snakes and Earrings”) by Hitomi Kanehara who shared the prize with Wataya. They aren’t all that long – I could probably finish them in half a day now – but they each took me several weeks to finish back then when I read at the pace of 5 pages a day. I looked up every word and there were many passages I wrestled with, but it was worth it. (I should admit that I was meeting with a professor once a week to go over any questions. She helped me out with a lot of the patterns I was unfamiliar with. Maybe if there are enough beginner readers around Tokyo we could start some sort of group. I’d be glad to lend a hand if anyone’s interested.)

Four Random Wikipedia Articles

As previously mentioned, Wikipedia is a great place to check translations and Japanese usage. It’s also a fantastic source of study material. The Japanese page has over 500,000 entries, and as in the English version these are articles that have been written and edited by real people. (Unlike all the other written material in Japan which is made by robots.)

To prove these points, I’ll take a quick look at four random entries and show exactly how useful they can be. The only rule I’ll have is that I’ll skip any wacky mathematic formulas or nonsense like that.

First thing to note is that “Random Entry” in Japanese is おまかせ表示. That’s a nice localization; randomness is a somewhat difficult concept to convey in Japanese.

Article 1 – 福島町 (曖昧さ回避)

Ha, that’s a strange turn of fate. I spent three years living in Fukushima Prefecture, and the first article that pops up is the disambiguation page for Fukushima Town. While this isn’t an article, it’s still pretty useful. We get to see how Japanese deals with “disambiguation page”: 曖昧 (あいまい) with a さ to make it a noun and then 回避 (かいひ), which is a way to say avoid. This page shows how Wikipedia can be useful for tracking down the pronunciation of difficult place and people names.

Article 2 – 山形県護国神社

This appears to be a shrine in Yamagata Prefecture, and judging from the name of the shrine and content of the article, it’s clear that the shrine plays some sort of role with national protection or the enshrinement of national heroes/war dead. (Note that I’m using only the Japanese here. The other rule is that I can jump to other Japanese articles to figure things out. Just no English.) You get some good vocab here. 明治維新 (めいじいしん) and 第二次世界大戦 (だいにじせかいたいせん), or the Meiji Restoration and World War II.

The one word I wish had a link is 祀る. That is the verb the shrine is doing to the 英霊 of 殉国者. 英霊 is literally “hero ghost,” I think, and judging from the Wikipedia page for 英霊, it seems to be connected to the respect for war dead/Yasukuni debate. (This paragraph may seem like a bunch of stumbling, but that’s how you learn to read when you’re a kid. There’s definitely something to be gained from reading without bothering with pronunciation and meaning. You need a basic foundation, of course, but as some point you have to take off your floaties and swim in the deep end.)

Article 3 – 随何

Now here’s some crazy Japanese. 随何 is a Chinese politician, diplomat, and, I believe, a Confucian scholar.  (I knew I should have excluded ancient Chinese politicians along with mathematic formulas.) I know he lived from the Qin to the early-Han periods, but most of it is nonsense to me, to be honest. You never know when you’ll find a small gems, though. For example: 儒者の冠を取り上げ、その中に放尿をしたという。Ha, sounds like an angry dude.

Article 4 – ウタツグミ

An animal – another turn of fate, since I previously noted that Wikipedia was useful for tracking down the translation of クモザル. Looks like some kind of small sparrow, some variation on the ツグミ famous for its voice, so it gets an ウタ in front. Not that difficult an article to read. Gotta love the efficiency of phrases like this: 雌雄同色である. And easy enough to get the English translation (“Song Thrush”) if you needed it.

I hope that gives you an idea of what Wikipedia can do, even randomly. Feel free to try the challenge yourself. Loads of good material.

Cool Link – すべらない名無し

2channel is a Japanese internet forum. You can try browsing it yourself, but it’s massive and seems like it would take a long time to find exactly what you’re looking for. After you click on the main graphic, there is a huge list of topics on the left.

The other day while searching for examples of 差し入れ, I came across a blog that seems to cull the funniest posts from 2channel and post them as blog entries – すべらない名無し. It’s kind of an Overheard in New York for 2channel.

The topics vary but are almost always funny. It proves that Steven Segal provides just as much unintentional comedy in Japan as anywhere else. You can also read about the displeasures of fellatio, the misfortune of setting your 変換, and how to make hilarious manga titles by adding/changing one character. Recommended reading. The comments are generally fun, too.

名無し (ななし) refers to the name, or lack of name, of the posters on 2ch. Almost everyone posts anonymously, and the default anonymous name is 名無し or some funny reworking of 名無し; in the literature section, for example, it is 我輩は名無しである, a pun on a Soseki novel. すべらない you might recognize from Hitoshi Matsumoto’s すべらない話. I’m unsure if it’s related to 滑る, which has the same pronunciation and means “to slip,” but even if it’s not, that’s an easy way to remember what it means – if it slips (すべる), it’s not funny; if it doesn’t slip (すべらない), it’s funny. So basically the title means “Funny No-names.”

How to Find Stuff

The other day at work I was faced with a challenge – a phrase made up of individual words I recognized, but whose collective meaning I didn’t know and wasn’t available in ALC.

The phrase was – 「HIPHOP界のカリスマband name」 It doesn’t matter what the band name is. I understood a good bit of this phrase. HIPHOP was very clear, as was 界. Together they mean “the hip-hop world/industry.” You often see the word 業界 (ぎょうかい), which means a given industry. You can change the 業 to a more specific kanji/word to make it specific – e.g. HIPHOP界, 音楽界, 文学界, etc. カリスマ is also relatively straight forward; it should mean something like “charisma.”  

The strange thing about this phrase is that HIPHOP界のカリスマ all modifies the band, but there’s no な or の connecting the phrase to the band name. At first I thought “charisma” might be part of the band name or some other musician, but it didn’t turn up any searches, so I figured it had to be modifying the band.

Google to the rescue. I tried a search for 「HIPHOP界のカリスマ」, but nothing helpful turned up. I tried image searching and a picture of Eminem came up, as well as some other Japanese hip-hoppers.

That’s when I realized what to search for – 「界のカリスマ」 This gave me tons of different results – ヨガ界のカリスマ、映画界のカリスマ、ファション界のカリスマ. All of these phrases modify different individuals who are all at the top of their respective industry. This I realized when I clicked on the result for 音楽界のカリスマ任天堂の近藤浩治氏. He’s the guy who did all the music for Mario, Zelda and some other Nintendo games. He’s the master.

A few google searches and I figured out that this is the way they say someone is at the top of the industry – someone is, I guess, the "charisma" of their industry. I translated it as the phrase “band name, currently at the top of the hip hop world.” A very strange phrase, and I think there is probably a better way to translate it. I’m just glad I understand it now.