Intermediate Reading Recommendations

Reading Japanese is hard…until it isn’t. Finding the right material for that period of time when you’re moving from advanced beginner to intermediate is critical. You need to find something that’s not going to make you want to defenestrate the text itself or the device you’re reading it on but that will at the same time push you to learn new words and phrases.

Looking back on my own experience, I read the Murakami collection “Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round” while I was on a spring break trip. I think that was the first real book I read on my own, and it was just about the appropriate level. I could basically understand what was going on, and being on a trip meant I often just read past things I didn’t understand fully, trying to get a sense of the meaning from context. This is an important skill to practice, something you’re likely doing in your native language without realizing it.

I jumped into a couple of novels after that with the help of a professor, and I’m glad I had that help because there’s something about the first few pages of Japanese 純文学 (junbungaku, “pure literature”) that’s fairly dense and difficult. The text often settles down after this.

There are places to find the texts you need, online and for free. Here are a few reliable resources:

NHK’s Easy Japanese News

The news! But easy! For example, instead of 少数民族 (shōsū minzoku, minorities), the headline for this article uses 人口が少ない民族 (jinkō ga sukunai minzoku,people with a small population). There’s also a feature to turn furigana off and on. The bonus is that you’ll be keeping up with the latest news from Japan.

Ogawa Mimei

Someone is determined to upload all of Ogawa Mimei’s writing to Aozora. His stories just keep on popping up on the list of newly added works. They all have furigana and are written in a fairy tale/children’s literature style, so the grammar and vocabulary is relatively simple. We’ve been reading one for the Japanese Reading Group that’s been a lot of fun. Highly recommended.

Itoi Shigesato’s 今日のダーリン 

You might recognize Itoi Shigesato as the mind behind Mother (EarthBound). He was also the editor who got Murakami to write the series of super short stories that were collected in 夜のくもざる (Yoru no kumozaru, The Night of the Spider Monkey). He maintains a website ほぼ日刊イトイ新聞 (Hobo nikkan Itoi shimbun, Nearly Daily Itoi Times), which has a short essay on the front which self-destructs each day and is not archived (although it does look like he makes the previous day’s essay available now?). They’re relatively short and pretty casual. The title of the series is 今日のダーリン (Kyō no dārin, Today’s Darling). Worth a read!


Ameblo is Japan’s largest blog network. Recommendations on the top page usually point to active and often illustrated blogs, but you can also search by topic and interest. The best part about these blogs is that you’ll be getting casual, living Japanese, which won’t always be easy to understand but will be useful. Explore! And while you’re at it, why not try creating your own blog?

The real key for any of these is ensuring that you get the repetitions. Having the right reading material matters very little if you’re not actively getting through it. Do whatever it takes (be ruthless) to get those repetitions.

Japanese Definitions and Twitter Sleuthing

I’m in the Japan Times this week with a look at some cool websites that help you define the differences in Japanese words: “使用? 利用? Make use of a dictionary to use your Japanese properly.”

It’s always good to start reading Japanese explanations of things as soon as you are able. The Wool vs. Cashmere explanation is a good example of something that’s pretty interesting, and perhaps not as dull as grammatical explanations.

But we need the dull grammatical explanations, too! This is always a good reminder that the 日本語文型辞典 is an awesome resource. Here’s the full quote from the section I cite about the difference between なければならない (nakereba naranai, must) and なければいけない (nakereba ikenai, must):



However, it’s one thing to read these and another thing entirely to put them into practice. The best advice I can give there is to write out a few example sentences of your own, ideally based on some Google sleuthing, and then mindfully attempting to incorporate them into daily usage.

Lately I’ve noticed that Google sleuthing for native phrases isn’t as helpful as it used to be. The Google algorithm seems to be focusing on webpages explaining the phrases rather than random sites that use the phrases.

I’ve been relying far more on Twitter sleuthing, which has been providing excellent results. Let’s see what we can find with the examples above.

A search for なければならない, for examples, gives this example from the great Count Okuma of Waseda University fame:

A loose translation of his quote: The young must hold lofty ideals. And they must have the courage to put them into practice.

Definitely seems worthy of social obligation/necessity.

I found one result of this pattern from an account that seems to have gone private, but I left the tweet open in a tab for so long that I was able to screenshot it:

Coincidentally this is also university related—it’s the beginning of the term there, and the clubs are all out in force inviting frosh to join. One upperclassman has had enough:

Another good example of the fact that everyone has to suffer this 勧誘地獄 (kanyu jigoku, solicitation hell), which is one of my new favorite Japanese terms.

On the other hand, the user B太郎 has to have his morning fried chicken from Family Mart and expresses this individual necessity using なければいけない:

Another user desperately needs some sleep:

I think this shows that Twitter is a pretty reliable source for native phrases. Are there any other sites you use? Maybe blog sites? Anything else?

How to Japanese On the Road – Guidebooks

I’m in the Japan Times today with a look at how to use Japanese travel guides to study the language while you’re traveling in other countries: “Learn Japanese as you travel the world.”

I wrote the blog post below over seven years ago. I intended to post it while I was traveling abroad in Europe, but the trip was canceled and I never made it. Somehow the post has remained drafted in WordPress despite once losing my entire site to Ukranian hackers (or something), so I thought I’d share it today.

I wish I would’ve had access to a larger selection of travel guides to choose from, and I’d really be more comfortable carrying around a paper copy, to be honest, but the 地球の歩き方 for London and the るるぶ for Paris have helped provide decent overviews for the cities, and I’ll spend the next two weeks planning out the details of a new trip I’ll be making to Europe in October!

I’ll be in the following locations on the following dates, so holler if you’re around and want to buy me a drink or something tasty to eat or to show me a cool museum:

October 6-7 – Brussels
October 7-10 Paris
October 10-13 London
October 13-15 Newcastle
October 15-17 Edinburgh
October 17-18 Dublin

And then I fly back home on October 19. I’m excited!

So enjoy the post below, and damn that final line feels incredibly prescient. :/


If you can speak a bit of Japanese, it makes financial and educational sense to skip the English guidebooks and pick up a local one. Not only will it force you to learn a lot of Japanese, Japan has an enormous selection of guides to choose from (these people love to travel), and the books are about half to a third of the price of English language guidebooks sold in Japan. Lonely Planet and Roughguide will cost 2000-3500 yen, a significant markup compared to the prices back home. In comparison, the local ララチッタ series is only 1200 per volume. They have strategic walking tours in the front (with detailed maps), extended listings in the back, and great, high quality pictures throughout. I picked up a guide to Munich and one to London – the two places where I will most likely be on my own:

As you can see, the guidebook has pretty good coverage of the beer in Munich:

On the previous page there is a walking tour that goes 1) breakfast of white sausages and white beer, 2) Oktoberfest Museum, 3) lunch at Hofbrauhaus, 4) beer omiyage, 5) famous sausages and beer for dinner. No complaints from me.

All Japanese guidebooks come with the added benefit of helping you appear Japanese.

Cool App – 新和英大辞典

I’m in the Japan Times this week: “Investing big but wisely in Japanese study aids can reap dividends.”

The article was inspired by my recent purchase of the 新和英大辞典 (Shin Wa-Ei Daijiten, New Japanese-English Dictionary), which I can recommend highly.

If you have a Mac computer and the app on your iPhone, you should be able to copy and paste between the two devices, effectively making it a dedicated dictionary screen. A lot of freelancers I know prefer multiple screens so they can juggle a word processor and dictionaries or other applications. (I’ve found the copy-paste feature a bit finicky, but this has more to do with iOS than the dictionary app.)

I haven’t fully explored all the features year, but as you can see on the main screen, it keeps track of your recent searches and when you did them, which is neat:

The dictionary also allows you to easily swipe between entries, which simulates the paper dictionary…kind of cool, but you can only see one entry at a time.

It would be interesting if they allowed you to see three or four forward or backward and then select from there. But that’s not a super useful feature.

The information section has the foreword of the dictionary and detailed information about all the entries:

There are a couple other ways to browse:

As you can see above, you can browse by the Japanese syllabary, by field of study, and by the Chinese pronunciation of the kanji:

There’s also a set of random lists that could come in handy, such as a couple of 年表 that have year-based calendar information for Japan and world history, currency for different countries, and even etiquette/form guides for letters and emails, including how to execute different 顔文字, which they call スマイリー (“smiley”):

All-in-all, it’s a nice little dictionary app, and it’s on sale for basically half off until the end of March. Worth picking up if you’re in need of a reliable dictionary.

Deep Dives

I’m in the Japan Times this week with a look at using Wikipedia for anguish practice…er, reading practice: “Wikipedia ‘deep dives’ can help recreate the joys and pains of Japanese-language immersion.”

This is an exercise I’ve done in the past, but I think playing the game for the JT resulted in some pretty nice material to look at.

The textbook thing, of course, pops up in the news every now and then, but it was very funny to read about the Textbook Bribery Incident and how it was uncovered.

And I was thrilled to have an excuse to revisit Adam’s amazing trek of abandoned rail lines in Hokkaido. It makes me want to do a similar trip of my own, but I’m still lame from my surgery. It will be another 6-8 weeks before I’m back to normal, but I at least don’t have to wear my brace 24/7 anymore.

This gives me a good excuse to embed all the videos here. I’m always so impressed with his video editing skills. Crack open some beers and kick your feet up; these are longwatches:

And apropos of nothing, this week’s piece is my 32nd Bilingual column for the JT! I missed the even, diez-divisible anniversary two articles ago, so I thought I’d take a quick moment to pause and say…damn, I can’t believe I put out that many articles! Thanks as always for reading and commenting. If you have any questions or suggestions for topics, I’d be glad to hear them.

I missed the Murakami Fest post last week due to being busy with freelance work, but I have a big post that I should be able to put up later this week before we hit October, so keep an eye out for that.

Pre-JET Japanese Triage

I gave a short crash course on Japanese for departing JETs at the Consulate-General of Japan at Chicago yesterday, and I thought I would post the handout I gave everyone and add a few links and explanations. The goal of the presentation was to prepare the JETs for schools and classrooms, give them some ideas about how to make requests and say no (two notoriously difficult and delicate things), and to put them in the right mindset to study Japanese.

Pre-JET Japanese Triage Notes.docx

(I can’t get the embedder to work, so here’s a link to the file for now.)

A couple of notes:

I was asked after the presentation whether お+stem+になります is still viable keigo. It absolutely is. The only reason I didn’t include it in the presentation was to simplify things. I think one of the reason keigo seems so difficult at first is because noobs (including myself, long ago) sometimes have difficulty remembering whether to use お+stem+します or お+stem+になります at the moment when you are finally asked to use your keigo. Knowing that passive is an alternative is an easy way to not mess it up. But obviously お+stem+になります is also handy and should eventually be incorporated into your repertoire.

I also shared a few thoughts on teaching at elementary school, so I wanted to be sure to include the link to my videos over at danierusensei on YouTube. 33 different videos for activities you can use in the classroom. Hopefully this allows you to go into the elementary school classroom more prepared than I was.

Cool Input – Nippon Archives Man’yōshū Podcast

I was hunting for Japanese podcasts recently and came across the Nippon Archives Man’yōshū podcast. I was surprised when I clicked on it – not only is it sponsored by JR (If you don’t love the JR, I’m convinced you are a miserable, unhappy person), it’s a video podcast that introduces poems from the Man’yōshū. You can watch the podcast, which gets released the second and fourth Wednesday of each month, then read the explanation of the poem on the website. There is a direct transcription of the explanation (an excellent way to check listening comprehension), and you can also click 原典付き詳細解説 to see the modern reading (現代語訳) of the poem and the old school original text (校訂原典) with kanji only. Pretty awesome.

On top of all that you get amazing video of the Japanese countryside with sad Japanese music played over the top. What more could you ask for? Nippon Archives has a few other podcasts worth checking out – a Kyoto-themed podcast about the “24 solar terms,” a Nara-themed podcast about “beautiful Japan,” and a Shizuoka-themed podcast about Mt. Fuji.

I took the image above from Scroll 1, Poem 28 a nice and easy summer-themed poem that many of you should be able to understand.

How to File U.S. Taxes From Japan

When I came to Japan after graduating, I was excited to be an adult. (Forget the fact that the JET program holds your hand all the way over to Japan.) I had my own apartment. I was getting paid a decent wage. I was a car owner. I was making omelettes for dinner every night. But with adulthood come great burdens. One of these, which I was somewhat excited to take on, is filing taxes.

Fortunately, the process is relatively simple for foreigners living abroad, and I found Shana West’s great website which explains everything. That page is here. It is extremely detailed and helpful, so I recommend using it, but I’ve summarized the process below and added a couple of details.


In Japan, your final paycheck of the year will include your 源泉徴収票 (げんせんちょうしゅうひょう). This is proof of how much you earned and were taxed that year – the Japanese equivalent of a W-2. It’s a small piece of paper and easy to lose track of, so keep an eye out for it. If you do lose it, it shouldn’t be too difficult to get another copy printed at your local town/ward/city office. (On a side note, that word is so much fun to say. 源泉徴収票, heh.)

2. File Form 4868 by April 15.

In order to meet the requirements for exemption from U.S. taxes, you need to have lived in Japan for 330 days. JETs generally arrive at the end of July/beginning of August. Foreigners abroad automatically have a two month extension, but that isn’t always enough for first year expats. Filing Form 4868 gives you until October 15. So submit this form, and then just wait.

3. Turn your 源泉徴収票 into an English W-2.

Because the 源泉徴収票 is in Japanese, you need to translate it for the IRS. I always copy it and then mark up the copy exactly as Shana says. At the top I write “FOREIGN INCOME STATEMENT.” I point out the Japanese calendar year “HEISEI 21 (JAPANESE CALENDAR YEAR) = 2009.” I show them my name in Japanese (although this year and last my name has been printed in English). And then I show them the amount paid: “AMOUNT PAID = X YEN x 1USD/93.68YEN = $Y.” I don’t notate the after taxes income, although it couldn’t hurt to point out that and then the amount you were taxed. That would kind of say “Shove it, you IRS tax monkeys. I’ve been paying my dues.”

At the bottom of the page I write (straight from Shana’s page): “Note: I used the 2009 average yen/USD exchange rate as reported by the Federal Reserve to calculate my income. That rate was 93.68 yen = $1.”

The Federal Reserve releases its annual exchange rates on January 1 every year. You can find them on their website.

4. Fill out Form 2555EZ and 1040 and send them along with your “translated” 源泉徴収票 to the IRS by October 15.

Form 2555EZ

This is the foreign income exemption form. The easiest residency test to pass is the “physical presence test.” Write the day you arrived in Japan and then a year from that date. From your second year onward these dates will always be 1/1 and 12/31. On the second page, note all the days that you were back in the U.S. (Remember, this is just the time back in the U.S., not the time you spent outside of Japan, so you don’t have to include that trip to Thailand – you JETs are all so predictable.)

Form 1040

This is the most annoying form. It’s only tricky if you have any earned income from the U.S. Follow Shana’s advice and fill out the form as you normally would, but include your Japanese income. This becomes significantly more simple your second year onward (at least it did for me) because you should have no earned income from the U.S.

I’m still not sure I’m filling it out properly. The one thing I do know is that I make significantly less than the $91,400 that you are allowed to claim as an exemption. My strategy is to just write “0” for any category I’m unsure of and then my Japanese income in parentheses for the “Other income” line.

And you’re done! Send that shit in and crack the beers!

A couple of notes:

– I didn’t fill out Form 8802 that Shana lists on her site. I was a CIR and was technically not able to get exemption from the Japanese taxes. Or so I thought. It was my understanding that the taxes would be deducted from my check and then given back to me in the form of a slightly higher salary. Wrong. I think I could’ve filed these forms if I tried. Oh well. Definitely get on that if you’re a JET.

– Some of my friends haven’t filed for several years and are worried that this will affect them somehow. I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Yes, you’re supposed to be filing them, but it’s not like you’re making a huge amount of money and embezzling it. And you actually are paying taxes. That said, if you are going to be moving home anytime soon (especially if you’re going for school), I’d try to at least get at least the most recent year filed. The good news is that you can ignore Step 2 if you’ve been here for over a year.

No excuses this year! You’ve got two sets of detailed instructions – the ones here and then Shana’s site – to help you through the process. がんばれ!

How to Bank Mad Cash in Japan – Director’s Commentary

How to Bank Mad Cash in Japan from Daniel Morales on Vimeo.

00:26 Johnny Cash’s “Busted” from At Folsom Prison. Great song. Wish they had it at karaoke in Japan.

00:35 This is the Ginza on a Sunday. They close the road during spring, summer and fall…I think as long as the weather is decent. There are even cafes that open up with tables and chairs in the middle of the street.

00:44 My roommates commented that this actually isn’t that expensive. I think people in Japan routinely spend upwards of 10,000 yen on their cell phone bill. I don’t use it to talk all that much, so it stays relatively cheap. I still miss the days of free nights and weekends.

00:49 Okay, I cheated here kind of. This is gourmet fruit from Queen’s Isetan in Shinagawa, so it’s pricey. Normal apples are closer to 100 yen.

00:52 Beer, however, is expensive. Part of it is due to the taxes, which are much higher than in Europe or the U.S., but part of it is also due to the high quality of the beer itself. Your regular 100% barley malt beer offering from the big four breweries is, I’d argue, higher quality than the basic beer from American breweries. I know that Budweiser doesn’t have anything on Premium Malts. That’s for sure.

00:55 This cheese is outrageous. I have narrowed down the best cheese in Tokyo. Go to Seijo Ishii and look for the wedges of cheddar or mozzarella that are 299 yen. Arguably it’s the best value in the whole store.

01:00 On Sundays this same natto is only 68 yen. If you can bear the stink, natto is a great way to supplement a bento.

01:05 “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s Requiem.

I ate all three of these natto containers in about 15 minutes. I wanted to use all of the footage, but it was too long even after I sped it up to 700%.

01:17 I rarely ate natto until the principal at the junior high school where I worked commented that it was called “the samurai meat” in Japan. Samurai apparently used to roll cooked beans in bamboo leaves, put them in their pocket, and then run off to battle. Whenever they got hungry (sometimes weeks later), they’d pull out the beans (rotten by then) and dig in. I thought that was awesome. Then another teacher mentioned how cheap they were. This I also thought was awesome. So now I eat them quite frequently. Probably a three-pack a week or so?

02:01 Spinal Tap’s “Gimme Some Money.”

I still think this relative change section is genius. Check out my writeup in the original post. Basically, I argue that psychologically we are more likely to spend change too freely, and that kills you in Japan because you end up throwing around the equivalent of 1 and 5 dollar bills.

Think about this. When the exchange rate was down at 86 yen/dollar a couple weeks back, two 10 yen coins were basically equivalent to one quarter. But doesn’t a quarter feel more expensive? That’s because it’s the coin of highest value.

That reminds me. These numbers would be even less now because the dollar is so low. It would probably be like 9 or 8 yen average for each coin in the U.S. Worthless!

02:35 I don’t know the specifics in Europe, but apparently not all of these are used commonly.

02:39 I love the Aussie 2 dollar coin.

02:59 Allen Toussaint’s “Viva la Money.”

It really is tempting to buy drinks in Japan. One of my friends returning to Scotland after the JET Program was seriously concerned that he might suffer terrible dehydration post-repatriation.

03:12 My bag o change. Currently filling it (not so strictly as before) with the intention of taking the money with me on a trip to Europe next year. Very exciting.

I got a stern talking to from the bank lady because I left a few U.S. coins in with the yen. Won’t make that mistake again.

03:17 Thank you Internet for providing the random sounds used in this section of the video! (Yes, that is the Mario coin noise.)

I think the total amount ended up being closer to 160,000 yen because I had been taking bags of 500 yen coins with me to use for my daily expenses. All the cool guys pay for stuff with dirty Ziploc bags full of coins, right? Most of it I was able to change at the bank.

How to Shinjuku Station – Director’s Commentary

I’ve been insanely busy on both the work front and the home front, so I won’t be releasing new posts in December. Instead, I’ll be building up material for 2010 and reposting the videos I’ve put together over the last year with some additional commentary. These will run through Christmas, and then I’ll be entertaining family. Hope everyone is enjoying the holidays!

How to Shinjuku Station from Daniel Morales on Vimeo.

00:01 This opening sequence is great, right?! I’m really happy with how it came out. I took all of the videos on my digicam during my three years on the JET Program. The music is Ketsumeishi’s “人は.” Nice little song. Great lyrics.

The first scene is from Nebuta Matsuri up in Aomori. I highly recommend making the trip. I went on a 日帰り bus tour from Fukushima. We rode the bus all day with the occasional toilet stop, had an hour or two to see the Aomori Museum of Art (highly, highly recommended), watched the parade from 6pm to 9pm, and then got on the bus home. My most vivid memory from the trip? After picking up people in different towns along Highway 4 on the coast, we got on the expressway near Sendai, and all the old dudes busted out the alcohol, including one guy who had shochu in a milk-carton-sized container. I was jealous.

00:04 This is the Nozawa Matsuri in my JET hometown of Nishiaizu. In addition to my official homestay family, I was adopted by a local couple, and they invited me to carry the mikoshi with them. I’ve carried for four consecutive years. Always great fun. I wrote a bit about it last year.

00:08 The Aizu Aki Matsuri, known to local JETs as the “Samurai Festival.” It celebrates the region’s history of stubborn samurai with a parade and various reenactments. It reaffirmed my belief that the Aizu equivalent in the US is the deep, dirty South. Where else do people celebrate a long history of being assholes by dressing up and pretending to fight? I’m just saying…

00:12 Awa Odori in Tokushima City, Japan’s largest dance festival. I was lucky and had friends to stay with back in the summer of ’06. During the day, you’d never know that there are 1.3 million people in the city, but they all come out at night. So. Much. Fun. There are dances all over the city, but the ticketed seating every evening gives the groups a chance to show off in a more organized fashion. The International Association in Tokushima runs a dance troupe that requires no abilities or practice (I don’t think), and you can contact them to participate.

00:32 Music for the actual video is Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso,” one of my top five Monk songs. My top five list would have to be:

1. I Didn’t Know About You (Take 4), from Straight, No Chaser
2. Misterioso, any version (especially this one which is from The London Collection)
3. Functional, from Thelonious Himself
4. Monk’s Point, from Solo Monk
5. I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams (haven’t decided which take I like better of the two on the record…a relatively new addition to the list), from Monk Alone: The Complete Columbia Solo Studio Recordings

Man, that’s a hard list to make. Honorable mentions go to: any version of Straight, No Chaser, Blue Monk from Thelonious Alone in San Francisco, any version of Light Blue, any version of Crepuscule With Nellie, and the whole Brilliant Corners album (which has to be the Jazz equivalent of heavy metal).

00:46 Not sure if anyone noticed, but this whole video is a small ode to Monk’s unique style of dancing – the way he used to spin in circles. This shot spins around, and then cuts to each of the exits, moving counterclockwise around the station. A lot of my video ideas come specifically from hearing the song. I can’t remember if that was the case this time, but I think the song works well here.

02:01 The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office has to be the best free tourist attraction in Tokyo. There’s nothing like seeing the city from above.

02:47 I couldn’t believe this guy on the bike. I’d walked all the way through the tunnel, and then here’s this ridiculous old guy riding the squeaky-ass brake on his bike as a way to say, “Get out the way because I’m old and annoying!” Slap me if I’m ever an annoying old person.

04:24 Asking for help before you exit is critical in Shinjuku. It really pays to know where you’re heading before you arrive so that you don’t have to use any of these strategies. The other option is to avoid Shinjuku completely – when I first got to Tokyo I did a lot of my shopping there until I realized that I could find basically everything in Shinjuku within a ten minute walk of my apartment. I still go every now and then, but mostly for certain restaurants or bars, not shopping.