Language Learning Tool Reviews: Read Real Japanese Essays

Hiroshima-ken JET Jonathan Fisher reviews various tools for learning Japanese, including books, websites, flashcards, podcasts and more. Tools are rated on a scale of 1 to 5 stars, with 5 being the best.

By Jonathan Fisher

Read Real Japanese Essays.  Edited by, Janet Ashby (Kodansha International 2008).

[xrr rating=4/4]

Many of my recent reviews have dealt at least indirectly with the problem of remaining motivated to study Japanese, as this is a problem that I have been struggling mightily with recently. Having come to Japan with the admittedly vague goal of one day being able to read Japanese literature, I still find it difficult to find relevant-seeming texts written at or near my Japanese ability level. Adding to that the often daunting chore of looking up all the unfamiliar kanji and vocabulary in the dictionary as I read, more often than not, I find that I am talking myself out of practicing reading the few interesting Japanese texts that I do find. One remedy I have found is reading online with the aid of Rikaichan (previously reviewed). But for longer trips away from the computer, or when I would just prefer not to stare at a monitor, one solution I’ve found is Kodansha’s Read Real Japanese Essays collection.

I was somewhat skeptical of Read Real Japanese, in no small part due to the fact that living in Japan, I feel as if I am constantly surrounded by and forced to read real Japanese. What’s more real than a train schedule or nutrition information labels, right? It seemed like a ploy, a catchy but meaningless title. I was pleasantly surprised, however, when I found that Read Real Japanese Essays included an audio CD for listening practice (easily transferable to my mp3 player!), concurrent translations and explanations of difficult passages within each essay, its own text-specific Japanese-English dictionary, and even furigana (kana transcriptions) of every kanji used in the text. I was able to jump right in to the first essay (“White Lies” by Haruki Murakami) with confidence, and without the use of any supplementary texts or dictionaries. Read Real Japanese Essays is self-contained and, as such, is convenient to take with you anywhere you go.

Given the comprehensive explanations of passages, furigana, and relevant dictionary, Read Real Japanese Essays is a great book to use for Japanese reading practice. The content of the essays it contains is generally light, and the essays progress from easiest and shortest to longest. It is rather subtly done, but in the midst of reading what could easily be a “best of” anthology of some Japanese variety magazine, you can really focus on the grammar and constructions which come together to form typical Japanese writing. The authentic feel of these collected writings is, to me, its strongest point. Many of these authors are not likely people you have heard of before if you’ve only been living in Japan for a short time, but as a reader you can rest assured that they are popular authors, making this book a gateway to further Japanese practice when you bring it up in conversation with the native speakers you know. To be sure, there are cheaper resources out there, and it can still be very difficult for even beginning intermediate Japanese readers to jump into a book like this. But the structure of Read Real Japanese Essays makes it easy to focus on absorbing the way Japanese is typically written, making it a great gateway to increasing the amount of reading you do in Japanese.