Japanese Stories for Language Learners

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As a language learner and instructor, one of the most common pieces of advice I give to others is: read in your target language! Doing so exposes your brain to your target language and allows you to see vocabulary you’ve learned previously in context. Your mind then creates connections, and words and grammar points begin to become familiar to you.

During my years of intermediate Japanese learning, I tried my hardest to find reading resources for my level to help expose myself to real Japanese. I stumbled upon popular books like Breaking into Japanese Literature and Short Stories in Japanese: The New Penguin Parallel Text. While they were good, I personally found them dull, lacking interaction, and even containing errors in English translation. Then I found the Japanese Stories for Language Learners book. None of the other Japanese readers I’ve tried really had the interesting stories or all of the useful features — digestible English translations, vocabulary lists, translator notes, and reading comprehension questions — like this one did. The stories in this book stand out to me in that they begin with short and simplified versions of traditional folktale retellings and transition to the original texts of modern literary staples.

So if you’re genuinely interested in improving your Japanese literacy at an intermediate-advanced level while enjoying authentic stories from Japan, keep on readin’! In this article, I will break down the Japanese Stories for Language Learners book and illustrate how it can improve your reading comprehension skills through fun stories and engaging features designed for learners.

What is “Japanese Stories for Language Learners”?

Unlike other Japanese readers I’ve used before, the stories in this book utilize modern kanji along with relatively common vocabulary.

Japanese Stories for Language Learners was created by a teacher-student team at a university program for Japanese and translation studies. As its name implies, this book is simply a collection of Japanese stories with features aimed at Japanese language learners. According to its introduction, the book seems to be mainly intended for intermediate and advanced learners of Japanese.

There are five stories in total, each of which is listed later in this article. All the stories are based on the content from Aozora Bunko, which is an online library of Japanese copyright-free content available at no charge to the public. The first two stories are traditional Japanese folktales and use simplified versions of their source texts. They are easier than the rest of the book so intermediate and advanced learners can use them as a warm-up, and upper-beginners would probably be able to enjoy them as well. The rest of the stories are relatively newer, with the most recent published in 1934. They are short stories that represent Japanese modern literature from the 1910s to 1930s. These later stories are given in the original text, so readers who start with the easier folktales can transition to more challenging materials as they work through the book. Unlike other Japanese readers I’ve used before, such as Breaking into Japanese Literature, the stories in this book utilize modern kanji along with relatively common vocabulary. Overall, these selections are formatted well, packed with authentic Japanese writings, and open up many opportunities to learn new vocabulary and grammar structures.

After the story concludes, you can find a number of features in the following order: translation notes, a vocabulary and expression list, grammar exercises, and discussion questions.

And while we’re discussing the stories themselves, I would also like to mention how each one is organized along with their features. Each story opens up with a short blurb either about the story’s author or historical context. Then, the story is presented in both English and Japanese in a parallel fashion. The English translation appears on the left while its Japanese counterpart appears on the right. Since the authors are from a Japanese and translation studies program, the translations are excellent and beautifully done. After the story concludes, you can find a number of features in the following order: translation notes, a vocabulary and expression list, grammar exercises, and discussion questions. You will also be delighted by simple illustrations dotted throughout the book that serve as visual cues for each story. Pleasant additions as they are, they do not distract the reader from actually focusing on reading the content.

Page of Japanese Stories for Language Learners

The Stories

And for those of you wondering about the stories themselves, allow me to provide a short description of each along with its page length in Japanese and number of sections. Hopefully you can get a good idea of what lies within the pages of this book and judge whether or not it will be useful as literature or reading practice.

Title Page Length Description
Urashima Taro 3 pages A folktale about a young man who saves a baby turtle. This tale ultimately illustrates the old adage “time flies when you’re having fun.” It’s a very famous folktale in Japan and it’s worth knowing the storyline.
Snow Woman (Yuki Onna) 3 pages A Japanese ghost story about an unfortunate meeting with a chilling woman. The rendition here was written by Koizumi Yakumo (originally, Lafcadio Hearn), a Western compiler and translator of Japanese folklore and stories.
The Spider’s Thread 5 pages in 4 parts A story about a criminal named Kandata who attempts to escape Buddhist hell using a spider’s thread. The author is famous Japanese writer Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, whom the Akutagawa Prize, one of the most renowned Japanese literature awards today, is named after.
The Siblings Who Almost Drowned 11 pages in 8 parts A tale about three children going into the ocean which is filled with large, dangerous waves. One of them almost drowns. It was written by Arishima Takeo, a novelist who’s known for A Certain Woman.
Gauche the Cellist 21 pages in 10 parts A bad cellist is visited by several animals who ask favors from him each night. This story was written by Miyazawa Kenji, who is widely known as a poet and author of children’s literature.

As you can see, the book starts out with relatively shorter stories and eventually builds you up to a twenty-one page selection. Even though the book seems to be intended mainly for intermediate and advanced learners, I can see how the first two folktales (which, in fact, are “graded readers”) could be great material for beginners. Although the other three stories are more advanced as they are the original text, and some intermediate and advanced learners might find them a bit challenging, you can take advantage of the features like parallel translations, which will support your reading and learning experience.

Features

Accompanying each story are a number of features that really make this book stand out from the rest. Here I will list, describe, and provide some concrete examples from the text so you know exactly what to expect and whether or not this kind of study style is right for you.

Authentic Japanese Stories

Although the first two stories are simplified versions, the other three stories use the genuine literary text.

Arguably the best part of this entire text is the fact that it introduces readers to authentic Japanese stories. These are popular tales and modern literature classics that are widely known in Japan. Although the first two stories, “Urashima Taro” and “Snow Woman,” are simplified versions (understandable as the base content uses archaic words and expressions), the other three stories, despite being more challenging, use the genuine literary text.

Another important point to mention here is the literary style employed. Some Japanese novels are written in a more formal writing style that beginner students of Japanese may not be used to. です becomes である or just だ, for example. The selections in this book, however, mostly use the です / ます form, which is commonly used in the spoken Japanese that many beginner students are accustomed to. Of course, there are also instances where the more formal writing style is utilized. And if you are ever confused by a certain phrase or grammar structure, just look at the Vocabulary and Expressions section at the end of each story for definitions and explanations.

Since the latter three stories use the original text, you may see some quirks, especially in kanji usage. Some words are written differently than they would normally be written today. Take, for instance, the phrase below:

この蜘蛛の糸は己のものだぞ。
kono kumo no ito wa ore no mono da zo.

On the English page, this is translated as “This spider’s thread is mine!” But the word ore 己 (meaning “I, me”) is normally written using the kanji these days. Little things like that may be confusing for learners, but you should embrace it as a part of an authentic reading experience! These kinds of curve balls are inevitable, especially in older reading materials. For uncommon kanji usages like this, the Vocabulary and Expressions notes at the end of each story will tell you which kanji is more commonly used.

Full English Translations

Again, since this was created by a team from a university translation program, the English translations are very well done. While they respect the meaning of the original text, the stories read very naturally. This is much appreciated since I’ve seen awkward translations in books of this sort before.

While it is easy to compare the original text and its English translation, it is also very easy to glance at the translations before making much effort to understand the original on your own.

As for the format, the Japanese stories presented on the right page, while the left page of each spread contains an English translation. I have seen some online reviews complaining about the parallel translation not always being perfectly aligned (one sentence in Japanese may have its English translation on the previous spread and vice versa), but for me personally, this is not much of a big deal.

While this design makes it easy to compare the original text and its English translation, it is also very easy to glance at the translations before making much effort to understand the original on your own. So, if you are using this book to practice comprehending Japanese text, be conscious of how you read. The parallel translation is perfect to confirm your understanding of what you just read, and it helps you to observe the sentence structure and identify unfamiliar words or expressions by comparing. Definitely take advantage of it, but do so wisely!

But there is more than one way to read this book. Although the authors recommend Japanese learners read the original text first, when I read through the book I actually read the entire story in English beforehand so I could get an idea of what I was going to read in Japanese. Then, I would go on to read the Japanese alone. If I encountered a phrase or sentence I just could not understand, I would look for the English on the left side.

The editors write that they created this book hoping even non-Japanese learners could enjoy reading the stories in translation. So depending on your preference or learning goals, the book has that kind of flexibility in terms of how you can use it. Whatever you are looking for, it’s important to be mindful of your purpose and how you use this book to get the most out of it.

Translator’s Notes

One feature that I really appreciated was the inclusion of notes from the translators. These did an excellent job of explaining why certain translations were written the way they were. Cultural references are typically hard to translate, and trying to come up with an equivalent might result in a loss of accuracy or cultural detail. One of the notes for the story “Urashima Taro,” for instance, explains the special word tamatebako 玉手箱, which is left untranslated and described in the notes as “a magical item that takes the shape of a treasure box.” It also gives us extra information, stating that a proverb was created from this word: あけてびっくり玉手箱, a phrase used to express great surprise.

Page from Japanese Stories for Language Learners

Vocabulary and Expressions Lists

After the translator notes, you will see a long list of pretty much every major word and phrase used in the story. Words are presented with kanji and furigana, a bolded romaji transcription, and the English meaning or explanation. For certain grammar constructions, the book will also occasionally provide an example usage. The Vocabulary and Expressions section for “Gauche the Cellist,” for instance, gives an example usage of the 〜出す construction, which it translates as “to start to do … abruptly.” The example is given as follows:

妹は泣き出しました。
imōto wa naki dashimashita.

The authors translate this as “My little sister burst into tears.”

Bolded romaji readings can draw the eye, potentially causing the reader to use them as a crutch.

One complaint I’ve seen about the Vocabulary and Expressions section is that romaji readings are included at all. What’s more, the fact that they are bolded draws the reader’s eye to them, potentially causing the reader to use the romaji as a crutch. And I have to agree with this. For a book aimed at intermediate to advanced readers, it doesn’t make much sense to me to include romaji. In order to properly read the Japanese text in this book, you should already be able to read hiragana, katakana, and some kanji. The authors actually explain that they include romaji in the hope that non-learners can “directly experience the language used in a literary context.” Although I understand their intention to make these stories available to anyone regardless of Japanese ability, the lack of focus seems to have resulted in a disadvantage for their main audience: intermediate and advanced learners.

Exercises

After the Vocabulary and Expressions section, the book presents some simple questions in Japanese that test the reader’s knowledge of vocabulary usage and grammar structures. Although content from the story is used as a base for each question, the questions are not about the story itself. For those seeking to pass standardized tests like the JLPT, these questions are a must. Below is an exercise that tests the reader’s grammar knowledge and comes from “The Siblings Who Almost Drowned.”

土用波のころになると、風がぜんぜんない(ので・のに)高い波が来ます。

The question below, from “Gauche the Cellist,” tests your vocabulary knowledge. Which mimetic word is right?

ゴーシュは家へ帰ると、まず水を(ごうごう・ごくごく)のみました。

We will leave the answers up to you. If you have the book, all answers are provided in the very back.

Discussion Questions

While exercise questions are great, they do not really relate to the corresponding story content. That’s where the discussion questions come in! These questions, in English, urge the reader to think about what they’ve read and also provide opportunities to extend the reading experience beyond simply understanding the storyline. Here are a couple questions from “Snow Woman”:

Why do you think the Snow Woman left her children behind?

Have you ever heard of or read any other scary stories related to snow?

These questions can easily be used by a self-learner or even in a classroom or bookclub environment to deepen understanding of the work as a piece of literature. Japanese tutors can also utilize them to help process the information just read. As an instructor, I think these questions seem like a perfect way to extend the reading beyond the pages of the book and to foster communication between students as well.

Free audio to go with Japanese Stories for Language Learners

Free Audio

Every selection is made freely available in audio format on both a CD and on the book publisher’s website. They are great for listening and shadowing practice, or checking pitch accents and intonations for words and sentences.

Personally, I find the audio quality just fine. Every line is spoken clearly and slowly enough for intermediate learners to catch. In fact, the audio would make a great listening practice resource for learners looking to up their listening comprehension skills.

Some have criticized the audio for being of low quality. While I admit that the people who recorded the audio seem not to be using a professional microphone, the audio is still clear enough to understand and follow along with the corresponding text. In my book, the audio is a pro and not an overall con.

How Well Does It Stack Up?

This text contains authentic stories from Japan and has a plethora of useful features that I believe would benefit your Japanese study. This text can be easily used as a textbook in a Japanese literature course or even at home for self-study.

If the authors hadn’t considered non-Japanese learners, they could have cut out unnecessary romaji and furigana over the most basic kanji.

One thing that I wished could be different about this book as a Japanese learning resource is its lack of focus. The title clearly suggests that it is for “language learners,” and the introduction mentions that it could be used for intermediate and advanced learners. While it’s true that such learners could use it, the learning experience could’ve been improved if it was better-focused on intermediate and advanced levels. If the authors hadn’t considered non-Japanese learners, for example, they could have cut out unnecessary romaji and furigana over the most basic kanji. Intermediate and advanced learners may be disappointed if they come to this book expecting something tailored to their level.

Criticisms aside, however, this is overall an excellent Japanese learning resource that I can confidently recommend to anyone of the following:

  • Those interested in authentic Japanese stories, including Japanese folklore and modern literature classics
  • Learners hoping to improve their Japanese literacy through reading
  • People looking to sentence-mine for new words and grammar points
  • Individuals looking to break into authentic Japanese literature

Interested? If you can’t decide, the preview is available on its Amazon.co.jp page, so take a peek. Happy reading!

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David’s Review