Japan invented the creative user interface way before it was cool. Way before computers even existed.

Take the drop-down box, for example. All that information tucked away under a simple click. Japan has a more manual version that hides away in all of its 文芸誌 (bungei-shi, literary magazines), and it’s called the 目次 (mokuji, index).

The indexes for Japanese literary magazines fold out 観音開き (kannon-biraki, double-door) style into four and as many as five or six pages. Opening one feels like unfolding a literary centerfold of sorts; the magazine reveals itself to you, but at the 巻頭 (kantō, front of the book or journal) rather than the middle, and horizontally rather than vertically.

目次 are more inscrutable than a グラビア アイドル (gurabia aidoru, swimsuit model) foldout. They are a wall of text, intimidating even to intermediate students, and seemingly indecipherable to 初心者 (shoshinsha, beginners). But 折り込みの目次 (orikomi no mokuji, fold-out indexes) will reward those who persevere. On these pages reside a wealth of Japanese linguistic and cultural lessons.

First, let’s learn the proper way to read the 目次 of a Japanese literary magazine. Arrive at your 本屋 (hon’ya, bookstore) of choice with fresh legs and rested eyes. Do a lap to see what’s new on the shelves, give everything a look and settle like you always do (or should!) at the 文芸誌.

立ち読み (tachiyomi, reading while standing at a magazine rack) is the name of the game, and there’s no shame in reading a bit before you buy in Japan. This phenomenon may happen more often at コンビニ (konbini, convenience stores) as a form of 暇つぶし (himatsubushi, killing time), but it’s seen at bookstores as well and is also known as 試し読み (tameshiyomi, reading to try).

Once you’re nice and limber, assume a comfortable 立ち読み stance, pick up one of the literary magazines, and unfurl the 目次. The first thing you’ll notice is that the indexes are covered on the outside with 広告 (kōkoku, advertisements). This is genius-level ad placement: If readers want to know what’s in the journal, they won’t be able to avoid the ads as they open the index.

You can tell a lot about a periodical by the kind of ads that are placed in it. Publishers often promote their own 文学賞 (bungaku-shō, literature prizes) given out for competitions, especially the 新人賞 (shinjin-shō, new writer’s prize). They also promote their own bestsellers and other magazines.

The June 2019 issue of the well-respected and conservative-leaning magazine 文藝春秋 (Bungei Shunjū), for example, had an ad for Sayaka Murata’s “コンビニ人間” (“Konbini Ningen,” “Convenience Store Woman”) … but also for ウエスト総ゴム楽々パンツ (uesuto sō gomu rakuraku pantsu, elastic waist comfy pants).

The more youthful 群像 (Gunzō) from June 2018, on the other hand, featured an ad for Kodansha’s journal 小説現代 (Shōsetsu Gendai, Modern Fiction) as well as ads for an online bookstore and online CD shop.

Once you’re in the index, you may start noticing 枚 (mai), the counter for pages. This is a measurement of the length of a story, and is often used to emphasize how long something is. A single 枚 is equivalent to a single 原稿用紙 (genkō yōshi, manuscript page), which has 400字 (yonhyaku ji, 400 kana characters) or roughly 200 to 250 words.

Literary journals will run 短編小説 (tanpen shōsetsu, short stories) of up to 100枚 and 中編小説 (chūhen shōsetsu, novellas) from 100枚 to 300枚 or so, but anything of the longer 長編 (chōhen, full-length) variety gets serialized across several issues. The Japanese word for this is 連載 (rensai, serialization) and the huge number of serializations running in an issue make up their own section of the index, each denoted with the number of the installment.

You’ll find these journals also packed with 評論 (hyōron, criticism) and 選評 (senpyō, selection commentary for prize winners), as well as the uniquely Japanese 対談 (taidan, dialogue between two writers), which is a sort of literary podcast that predates the podcast form — it’s literally a transcript of a conversation between two writers.

Another lovely genre of writing unique to Japan is 随筆 (zuihitsu, miscellaneous writing), which is an extremely short essay between two to four pages or so, something I’d highly recommend for beginners looking to stretch their reading comprehension skills for the first time.

But the most important thing that you’ll see on a 目次 are the authors’ names. They will look unfamiliar at first, but your repeated visits to bookstores will eventually be rewarded when you’re surprised to find a writer you’ve become more familiar with, either in the index or perhaps even on the 表紙 (hyōshi, cover), if you’ve followed them long enough and they’ve had a few big breaks.

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