“What light novels should I read if I’m learning Japanese?” is one of the questions I most frequently get asked, especially by people who are visiting Japan and want to pick up some beginner-friendly light novels while they’re there.
My answer to this question is kind of complicated. Although light novels are typically aimed at teenagers, it doesn’t mean that the language is necessarily easier to read. In fact, from my observations, the language level is roughly comparable to “standard” novels, and the vocabulary varies greatly depending on what style the author is going for.
English novels are the same way, by the way. By the time you are a teenager, you will have learned almost all the common words in your native language. That’s why there’s no set readability level among “Young adult literature.”
That’s why light novels are generally not a great place to start learning Japanese. The language is not simplified the way a children’s book is. Let’s say you’re around N3-level when you pick up a light novel. You’ll probably be looking up words at least a dozen times per page, depending on the title. Some people learn Japanese by forcing themselves through light novels or visual novels that are way beyond their level, but they’ll be the first people to tell you that this is not a “fun” method that will work for everyone. Reading will feel like work.
So instead of telling Japanese learners to read light novels when they are starting out, I tell people to read children’s books, like the adventures of Kirby. Everyone loves Kirby.
Kadokawa Tsubasa Bunko or Shogakukan Junior Bunko publish many anime, manga and game adaptations, so they’re very weeb-friendly. I can’t recommend them enough.
However, even after hearing that, some people still want to read bona fide light novels, which I understand. So today I want to talk about one of the very first light novels I ever read in Japanese, and which helped me gain a lot more confidence in reading Japanese.
Omae wo Otaku ni Shite Yaru Kara, Riajuu ni Shite Kure! (I’ll Make You into an Otaku, so Make Me into a Riajuu!) by Rin Murakami is what you get if you breed Toradora with Genshiken. An otaku and a riajuu agree to play wingman to each other in order to set them up with each other’s friends, but in order to do that, they feel as if they need each other’s knowledge. It’s a really cute romcom with a lot of relatable moments, especially if you’ve ever identified as a geek, and I recommend it as a story in its own right.
There are several things that make OtaRia an easy read. First off, it’s got a real-world high school setting, which means that there is no fantasy or science fiction jargon. Secondly, the prose and dialogue are both very down-to-earth. Most of the kanji has furigana. There isn’t much wordplay, and the author never makes up expressions or creative readings of kanji. In other words, OtaRia has no gimmicks (well, besides the usual otaku tropes).
Yet OtaRia’s writing is never so simple that it feels banal, which is a problem I have often felt reading prose that has been deliberately dumbed down for me. The main character’s internal voice is so incredibly earnest and sympathetic that you can’t help but get drawn in. The very simplicity of the story becomes the reward. Reading OtaRia was the first time I felt as if I got fully absorbed in a story I was reading in my second language.
Reading in my first language is an effortless activity, and that’s what makes it pleasurable. However, reading in Japanese requires more active concentration. However, I see no point in using novels to practice Japanese if it isn’t fun. Until I read OtaRia, I felt as if I was forcing myself. I was translating stuff like Oregairu as a hobby, but I found myself enjoying the prose more when I read it back to myself in English rather than during my first read-through in Japanese. The quicker you learn the simple joys of reading in your second language, the better.
That’s why, even if I won’t rank OtaRia among my favourite light novels, I still look back on it fondly and consider it a turning point in the way I approach the Japanese language. Also, Rin Murakami is a better author than Haruki Murakami. I am firm in this assessment.
(Ore to Kanojo no Moeyo Pen is another series by Rin Murakami that is really easy to read, although it’s not as well-written overall. The illustrations are fantastic, though.)
To wrap up this post, I’d like to pose a question to Japanese learners: what was the first story you read that you felt you could fully absorbed in, as if you were reading it in your first language? Have you encountered a story like that yet? And what novels would you recommend to people starting out in their language journey?
Personally, the first chapter books I could get really into were the トリシアは魔法のお医者さん (Tricia is a Magic Doctor) series. It’s definitely intended for kids, with simple language and furigana (and occasionally even definitions for words in the footnotes), but the fantasy setting is fun and silly, and it can be surprisingly earnest and engaging sometimes. And they’re available in ebook form, which is always a plus.
Or for something a bit more advanced, the Kiki’s Delivery Service novels (also available in ebook form) are still a relatively easy read, especially considering how GOOD they are. The tone and quality of stories can vary pretty wildly, but the best ones hit on a very poignant, melancholy sort of magical realism. I’ve started translating some of my favorites.
…of course, most of my actual Japanese reading practice lately is video games. >>;;
Well, you’ve gotten me interested in both those series (especially Tricia)! Don’t underestimate children’s literature!
My reading level is still very basic but it helps for me to read stuff after I’ve watched the anime so I have a basic understanding of what’s going on.
Examples include the FMA manga, Kizumomogatari, and I’m currently working through From the New World
Reading stuff that you already know of and are a fan of does make it easier and more fun. Even so, reading From the New World must be quite a jump from manga, or even Kizumonogatari. Hope your language studies are going well!
It’s ok lol because a) I cheat on Kanji with Chineses knowledge, and b) I’ve watched the anime already so I know what’s going on most of the time.
I finished all the Japanese level textbooks (Genki I and II, Intermediate Integrated Approach and Advanced Japanese) and I can understand most things while having to look up words once in a while. My start after finishing both Genki books are playing Atelier Totori Plus on the Playstation Vita and eventually other games such as Tales of Hearts R. Somewhat challenging at first, but I got better at looking up Kanji using radicals and built up a good amount of vocabulary. I use Anki to memorize the words afterwards.
Generally, reading slice of life manga is preferred since the conversations are somewhat closer to real life. I generally don’t have any issues reading Manga Time Kirara series. While they don’t have furigana since it’s targeted to a Seinen demographic, but I feel that furigana is a clutch. It’s better to become familiar with the radicals that make up a Kanji. Then again, there are now smartphone apps such as Yomiwa that can use the phone’s camera to lookup Kanji through OCR, which makes it easy to lookup the word and then put it into your prefered flash card app. Of course, one needs to know enough grammar, at least finish Genki I and II and probably most of intermediate level.
It seems that you’ve worked out a good system for learning Japanese. And that’s a good point you made about the furigana being a “clutch.” Sometimes I find it annoying to read something with loads of furigana because it slows down my pace by making me “sound out” every word instead of focusing on the meaning. It’s better to have it just for the rarer words, in my opinion.
I wanted to like this, but was almost immediately hit with an exchange that boiled down to “You like this lolicon stuff?” “Well your precious soandso sempai is an otaku so he likes lolicon stuff, and you better learn to like it too.” I instantly closed the book. Grosd.
Sorry to hear it wasn’t to your taste. Although, for what it’s worth, she never learns to like the lolicon stuff. Teenagers tend to be insecure about their tastes and their identities, and they project those insecurities onto other people, and that’s explored in the book. The overall message of the series is something like “Don’t force yourself to be someone you’re not.”
I can’t really remember which series I first felt fully immersed in, because generally the ones I understand fully in Japanese I’ve seen with English first and then at least attempted to consume in Japanese. I think the first time I read a series with that kind of immersion was getting a copy of the 1st volume of Spirited Away manga in Japanese from a classmate at the time, because everything else I’ve tried is a lot trickier than I should have been attempting without a dictionary at the time of reading (Detective Conan, ReLIFE, Double Decker…).
As for series to begin with in Japanese, I’ve heard people recommend Yotsubato! or stuff oriented towards kids like Doraemon. I say – if you want to study with a dictionary constantly in hand and can trust your language skills enough – read whatever you like in Japanese (heck, even play Japanese-only gacha games if you think it’ll work for your immersion!), in conjunction with studying the language (if you’re still able to), make Anki cards and study them regularly.