Want to Practice Japanese through Light Novels? Read Otaria
“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?