I used to be afraid of reading Japanese books. I know that may sound ridiculous, but the thought of tackling long pieces of text was intimidating. Even though I had an advanced command of the language, my reading was slow and awkward, and didn’t do much for my self-confidence.

So, I would put off trying to read Japanese books. Having too much work can be a pretty easy excuse when it comes to picking up a new habit, but the longer I put it off, the guiltier I’d feel about it. Eventually, I got the hang of it and, for those of you who are looking for a New Year’s resolution for 2022, I’d like to suggest some places to get you started when it comes to reading.

Things changed for me when I picked up “魔女の宅急便” (“Majo no Takkyubin”) by 角野栄子 (Kadono Eiko, Eiko Kadono), better known in English as “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” What set this book apart from the others I’d attempted was that I wanted to read it. It’s a simple shift but the change from “needing” to “wanting” helped me finish my first Japanese-language novel from start to finish.

“魔女の宅急便” isn’t very long (around 240 pages), but it still took me about two months to get through it. The process was also surprising in that I began to engage with the language in a way I had never done before.

From there, I had the courage to try reading more, devoting 10 minutes every day to the endeavor. That became 20 minutes, then 30 minutes and, eventually, I was able to get through a novel every two to three weeks.

One of the tips I got when I started to read novels was to make a note of words that I didn’t know in order to study them later. But doing that began to feel like an obligation to master the vocabulary from one book before embarking on the next one, and that “need” put me off reading again. So, I made the choice not to study all the new words I encountered in my reading. Sure, I’d look up some to help with comprehension, but in a lot of cases I began to pick up the meanings just from context. Soon, I’d notice the words, kanji and grammar in other novels.

Some of the more memorable words I have picked up in my readings include 辟易 (hekieki, wince), 種明かし (taneakashi, the secret to a trick) and 眼光 (gankō, the glint in a person’s eye). It’s also thanks to novels that I know surprisingly common advanced vocabulary and kanji such as 躊躇 (chūcho, hesitate), 流暢 (ryūchō, fluent language skills), 驚愕 (kyōgaku, astonishment) and 噤む (tsugumu, to hold your tongue). These aren’t words that you’ll hear in everyday conversation, but they appear over and over again across a wide range of written texts.

Japanese books haven’t just exposed me to vocabulary and kanji, but to this country’s history and societal issues, as well as a variety of complex topics from politics to medicine.

For example, “私、定時で帰ります。” (“Watashi, Teiji de Kaerimasu.” “No Working After Hours!”) is a novel by 朱野帰子 (Akeno Kaeruko, Kaeruko Akeno) about a woman struggling with overwork. After watching both her father and ex-fiance almost work themselves to death, she resolves to never work overtime. The story is a gripping depiction of the various societal pressures on the Japanese to work too much and the impact it has on their health and relationships.

The book doesn’t just educate you on the culture of overwork but on Japanese history, too. The インパール作戦 (Inpāru sakusen, Battle of Imphal) is mentioned as the protagonist’s father describes the military campaign in which 100,000 Japanese soldiers were forced across the mountains into India with only enough provisions for 1 in 10 men. Thousands died as a result and the author draws a parallel with the reckless plans made by people in power that cause the people under them to suffer.

Bullying is another societal issue that’s often a topic for engaging stories. “かがみの孤城” (“Kagami no Kojo,” “Lonely Castle in the Mirror”) by 辻村深月 (Tsujimura Mizuki, Mizuki Tsujimura) and “よるのばけもの” (“Yoru no Bakemono,” “At Night, I Become a Monster”) by 住野よる (Sumino Yoru, Yoru Sumino) are two fantastic novels that look at the issue of bullying in school. “かがみの孤城” focuses on children who are 仲間はずれ (nakama hazure, being ostracized) and the pressure on other children to maintain this status quo to avoid being ostracized themselves. “よるのばけもの” tackles 不登校 (futōko, truancy) and children who avoid school for months or years on end.

In addition to the novels mentioned above, I’d recommend a series titled “鹿の王” (“Shika no Ou,” “The Deer King”) by the writer 上橋 菜穂子 (Uehashi Nahoko, Nahoko Uehashi). It follows two protagonists, an escaped war criminal and a doctor, as an unknown illness begins to sweep across their land. Similar to the “Game of Thrones” series by George R. R. Martin, Uehashi uses fantasy to get stuck in the weeds of politics and international relations. And, topical for the current climate, it also discusses pandemics, vaccinations and how politics and medicine interact with each other in complex ways that can have long-lasting impacts on society.

So those are my current picks for those who want to tackle reading in Japanese this year. And take it from me, even though you may think you’re not at the level where you can read an entire Japanese book yet, you’ll be surprised just how fluent you actually are.

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