Look to ‘senpai’ to help take your Japanese reading to the next level

by Daniel Morales

Special To The Japan Times

Reading Japanese is a solitary activity, but by no means did I learn to read on my own. If not for the generosity of several brave and patient souls who helped me struggle through different texts, I would never have developed the foundation necessary to read on my own.

I had a number of great Japanese teachers in college, but I wanted to be reading 小説 (shōsetsu, novels) and ノンフィクション (nonfikushon, nonfiction), not 新聞記事 (shinbun kiji, newspaper articles) and 物語 (monogatari, tales/legends).

Don’t get me wrong, though: These were useful introductory texts, and it is extremely important to read outside of your areas of interest. Newspapers in particular are useful because they help you tap in to current trends and events, things that you’re likely to discuss at ホームパーティー (hōmupātii, dinner parties); knowing these phrases will feed your burgeoning speaking skills. However, it’s also important to have defined goals and interests that will drive your pursuit of fluency well after you’ve left the classroom.

Reading Haruki Murakami in Japanese was the goal for me, and Paul was the first person who helped me get through a complete story. We looked at the title story from カンガルー日和 (Kangarū Biyori, “A Perfect Day for Kangaroos”), a set of playful short pieces that was Murakami’s second published collection of such stories.

In the story, the narrator and his girlfriend look forward to seeing a new カンガルーの赤ん坊 (kangarū no akanbō, “kangaroo baby,” i.e., joey). I butchered the pronunciation of akanbō, combining it with the word for human offspring, 赤ちゃん (akachan, baby), into the nonexistent word akachanbō. Paul laughed when I said this, and this sealed the two different words into my memory.

Unfortunately for the protagonists in the story, the weather is bad or they have things going on and are unable to find a time to make it to the zoo. Paul laughed again when I tried to read the next sentence: そんな風にして一ヶ月が 過ぎた (Sonna fū ni shite ikkagetsu ga sugita, “A month passed in this manner”). I pronounced the phrase sonna kaze because I’d only ever encountered 風 as kaze (wind) and didn’t realize that it could be combined with そういう (sō iu), こういう (kō iu), ああいう (ā iu), そんな (sonna), こんな (konna), and あんな (anna) to mean “in this way” or “in that way.” Suffice it to say, I haven’t made this mistake again either.

When I studied abroad, Sakakibara-sensei, a professor in the literature department who taught in English, helped me struggle through two recent winners of the 芥川賞 (Akutagawa-shō, Akutagawa Prize): 「蹴りたい背中」 (Keritai Senaka, literally, “The Back I Want to Kick”) by Risa Wataya and 「蛇にピアス」 (Hebi ni Piasu, “Snakes and Earrings”) by Hitomi Kanehara.

At this point, I still needed help with some basic words like 中一 (chūichi), a contracted form of 中学校一年 (chūgakkō ichinen, first year of junior high school). I also needed a hand with spoken colloquialisms such as こっちが聞きたい (kotchi ga kikitai), which equates to “That’s what I want to know.”

I’m incredibly grateful that Paul and Sakakibara-sensei took the time to read through these texts with me. 七転び八起き (nana korobi ya oki, literally “Fall seven times, stand up eight,” meaning “Failure breeds success”) is much easier when you have a hand to help you up, but eventually you have to go it alone.

The next step is reading on your own looking up every word, either in a dictionary or online, and then you graduate to 速読 (sokudoku, speed-reading or skimming). Rather than look up every word, you can choose to skip some and gather the meaning from context, which is likely what you do in your native language without even realizing it.

But what about when you get stumped? What can you do if you’re on your own? Well, the インターネット (intānetto, Internet) has come a long way. You can Google things that confuse you. Adding とは (to wa) to the end of a search is an easy way to say “What is X?” or “What does X mean?” For phrases like Kotchi ga kikitai, be sure to enclose your search within quotation marks to find similar sentences that might help elucidate the usage.

One of my favorite methods is to search Yahoo Japan’s 知恵袋 (chiebukuro, bag full of wisdom), where many Japanese post questions when they are confounded by their own language.

You can find basic questions such as 「場合」の発音は「ばあい」と思っておりますが、時々「ばわい」という発音に遭遇します (“Ba’ai” no hatsuon wa “ba’ai” to omotte orimasu ga, tokidoki “bawai” to iu hatsuon ni sōgū shimasu, “I thought the pronunciation of 場合 was ba’ai but sometimes I come across bawai“). Or more complex grammatical questions, such as this one about causative forms: 「見させて…」は正しい日本語でしょうか? (‘Misasete’ wa tadashii Nihongo deshō ka?, “Is misasete proper Japanese?”). Obviously you have to be able to read Japanese to sort out the answer, but this is great further reading practice, and it’s encouraging to know that the natives also have trouble with certain aspects of the language.

Once you’ve got enough reading experience, you can pay it forward by starting a reading group to help others, which is what I’ve done for the JET Alumni Association in Chicago. Each month we get together to look at a few pages of a Japanese novel, a short story or a blog post — anything to get us reading. Don’t be afraid to reach out and be a 先輩 (senpai, elder) if you’ve ever benefited from being a 後輩 (kōhai, junior).