Reading short stories: Where to start?!

Hi lovely WKers,

For a while now (okay, I’ll admit - years now) I’ve been slowly making my way through Penguin’s parallel Japanese texts. If you haven’t seen them, they show both Japanese and English translations of Japanese short stories.

Originally - before I found WK - I used them as a way of just re-reading, learning and immersing myself in kanji. It wasn’t effective but I painstakingly made my way through with a Japanese-English dictionary at my side. Since I started learning WK, I’ve been (relatively) zooming through and can see how far my recognition of kanji has come. It’s been really rewarding.

HOWEVER…

The grammar in these stories absolutely flummoxes me. I’m lost in a sea of hiragana and suddenly the kanji I used to dread are the only lighthouses I have to save me from the storm. I always thought I had a vague grasp of the basics - I thought I could recognise most nouns, common verb endings, prepositions, particles and adjectives - but I’m not sure I know anything anymore!

The hiragana between kanji seem to go on forever, to the extent I’m not sure where the noun/verb ends, the particles begin, or what on earth might be in-between.

Does anyone have any advice on how to go about deciphering this stuff? Any go-tos for what to look out for or recognise when starting Japanese reading? I can provide examples/pictures of the stories if that’s useful but there’s so many sentences I need help with I think general guidance would be better.

I’m happy to work at it and appreciate I won’t get to fluency for many years, but it’s frustrating to feel like every time I take one step forward in the kanji I take two steps back with the grammar. Any help would be really appreciated.

Thank you as always guys

Jo

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Post some examples. It sounds like you just need to hit the textbooks.

The Dictionaries of Japanese Grammar by Makino and Tsutsui are great for looking up one or two points you’re uncertain about, but they’re not useful if you’re totally lost and don’t even know what to look up.

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The more kanji you learn, the more you will find this to be the case. Maybe you need to aim for a higher-level text.

But yeah, maybe show us some examples.

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Maybe so… or maybe the opposite! My Japanese reading started with texts that were too difficult for me and then I’ve gradually moved down. I learn more and have more fun with easier texts where I have some idea of what’s going on. Difficult texts leave me frustrated, demoralised, and ready to give up Japanese altogether! Perhaps the OP should try reading something at a lower level?

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I’m going to second either getting a grammar dictionary or a textbook. How much grammar have you learned, @jodavey?

I’m not sure if this applies in this situation since I haven’t read the source text(s), but part of what could be giving you trouble with low-level reading is recognizing where the words in hiragana begin and end. I have a lot of trouble with distinguishing which words are where when a lot of the text is in hiragana, because I’m used to reading the words in kanji. You could try reading aloud, maybe! I find that helps me figure out which hiragana make up whole words and which make up only parts and pieces.

Rather than aiming for a different level, perhaps just a different genre would be better. I find reference materials made for young children to be much less impenetrable than literature for them. For instance, you could find a school subject you are interested in and look for materials for elementary school students in that subject. Those kinds of things have to be written clearly and avoid using colorful language just for the sake of it. There can still be “stories” in those, they just won’t be written the same way as literature.

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Maybe just read Tae Kim from beginning to the end. Refreshes what you knew, shows you what you still don’t know. TK doesn’t take you all the way, but it’s a good start, and after that, maybe google for “IMABI”.
By that point, you’ll have a good idea where your comprehension problems come from and how to target them properly.

Yup, that sea of kana will be pretty confounding until you spend more time familiarizing yourself with grammar. The good news is that with continued study and exposure to the grammar patterns, you’ll start to automatically make better sense of it. Definitely need to put in the 勉強 time, though. :hourglass_flowing_sand:

Some resources:

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I looked up the book, and it doesn’t seem to be as accessible as one would think. Kristen actually wrote an article about it.

With regard to comments about the contents, there are screenshots of a couple of pages provided as well as the list of stories and authors in the article. These aren’t graded readers, but translations of contemporary short stories into English.

According to the pros and cons list at the bottom, it’s stated that this book is for advanced learners. So @jodavey, if these are really difficult to read, it’s probably best for you to set this aside for later and build your skills with something easier.

In addition to studying more with grammar, I would suggest Satori Reader, which can be really accessible or the 分後ふんご以外いがい結末けつまつ series (available on Amazon.jp) though I cannot guarantee that you will enjoy the content of either of these. I’d also like to refer you to the book groups on the forum which is a great way to get support going through stories if you don’t mind going at a group pace. You can suggest books to start a group or join an existing group. I credit my participation in those groups in helping to build my confidence and consistency with regard to reading in Japanese.

Hopefully this helps.

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Thanks everyone who replied!

I’ve just read Kristen’s article about the book - I did wonder if it had made the rounds somewhere on here already. For those people asking for examples I will post a couple of photos at the end. I also totally agree on reading aloud - I spend a lot of time muttering Japanese under my breath on trains and planes!

These stories vary wildly in style and therefore difficulty. I found the first, a Murakami, the right level of challenging but some of the later ones are just a minefield. One in particular that I’ve just finished has a peculiar style of writing that shows clearly in the English translation too - highly list-based and detail-focused that makes the Japanese sentences run on for whole paragraphs. :sweat_smile:

Clearly I need to reacquaint myself with grammar and for some bits just learn from scratch. I really appreciate all the recommendations and will be working my way through to see which might work best for me. I already have TK’s guide so will go back through that to begin with. Much as I would love to feel like I’m too high a level for this book, it definitely doesn’t feel like that. It seems more likely that my grammar needs work and good old fashioned revision.

The problem I find (and the reason I started on this book) is that I quickly forget grammar if I don’t regularly use it and apply it. This book in particular was great because it only shows you a furigana reading once per story, so it forced me to remember kanji readings and really dig deep for things I knew from way back when.

One of the things I found confusing in this book however - and this seems to be a symptom of Japanese - is that words I knew the kanji for were occasionally written out in hiragana from time to time (adding to that hiragana sea). I know some words are just more commonly written in hiragana than their kanji, but usually if I know the kanji it’s because I’ve seen it used before. I suppose writers use katakana for emphasis so perhaps this is similar? Does anyone know why this happens?

I’m hoping either a lower level book with an engaging story or as Leebo suggested, a reference book on a chosen subject, will keep me on a challenging study path and I’ll see if Kristen has any recommendations on her page.

Here are some examples from the book including Eng translation: the first from the Murakami and the second from the difficult one! Apologies for the size of print - hard to take close ups of whole sentences when they span a page.

Thanks all!

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I’d second the suggestion on hitting the grammar books. In those excerpts you posted, I think it’s probably less a sea of kana problem and more a lack of grammar problem.

Two suggestions though!
One!
I’d definitely recommend reading what interests you. While the excerpts you posted aren’t exceptionally difficult for me at my level, I do find the style of writing boring (unpopular opinion?), which makes it a lot harder. So I’d say, read what interests you! Whatever that might be. And if whatever you’re reading gets boring, read something else. You’re not in school - you get to pick what you read.
Two!
To give you some time to get used to reading the grammar before having to face it in the hiragana sea, you can read stuff aimed at a younger audience that actually has spaces between the words. Or… however Japanese people decide to place spaces, it can seem a bit arbitrary. Anyway! The main problem there is finding something basic enough to have spaces, but interesting enough to not be boring. I suggest something like Pokemon for that, personally. The newer games let you play with Kanji (instead of all kana), but they still have spaces for younger readers - and there’s a lot more reading than you might expect. That could help you get used to everything without having to fish out the words from the sea.

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I for once started reading after tackling all grammar in Genki I (by following the book). I did Graded readers for japanese learners to begin with and by the time I started reading tales aimed at japanese kids I was aware of all grammar in Genki II (just for reference, since I didn’t went with the textbook routine) as well, but basically just by checking grammar as I would do any unknown word while reading.

Anyway, I treat grammar as I do vocab while reading… if too much unkown terms while reading appear, then I have to switch to something else… that still grabs my atention. So far I’ve been following the 10分で読める伝記 series, that as I go in the upper levels still presents 2-3 unkown words per page (vocab or grammar) (probably each page is 40-60 words, yours look more dense, so have that into account), which allows me too keep the focus while having to look at the dictionary a couple of times and ocationaly my grammar reference book too.

Grammar will repeat itself enough so you can do a quick review when you bump into it and then use context to make sense out of it; of course you can still can go deeper and read more about some concept, but the doing a textbook in advance I think it’s not too practical after you’re done with the basic grammar concepts.

In any case I think a good and concise grammar reference book (my favorite is “A Handbook of Japanese Grammar Patterns for Teachers and Learners”) is as much needed tool as a good dictionary while reading. Textbooks for intermediate and advanced grammar feel like vocab lists :man_shrugging:
In any case I found N1 and N2 grammatical concepts more often than I previously thought while reading those books aimed at kids… so a more structurated aproach doesn’t seem to be any better than the learn on the go approach for preparing myself for any specific material when reading native content .

EDIT: I’ve been reading those samples and I’m lost :cold_sweat:… I mean there’re lots of words I know, but as I start adding terms that I’m having doubts and clearly unkown words, sentences get blurry in my head . I would say lower the level If what I’m saying resembles your situation. There’re easier stories, maybe more oriented to younger audiences, but still within the realm of entertaining material :slightly_smiling_face: … I think keeping unkown term to a few will improve your experience when reading.

I migh add as well a video related to something within this lines… having material with varied difficulties in your routine, so you read something for the heck and fun of reading… somthing that makes you sweat a bit more… and then that steeper hill you aim at conquering.

Oh the Murakami looks interesting, just the right level of difficulty. Do you have an ISBN or a link for that book? Thanks!

The book apparently is “Short Stories in Japanese: New Penguin Parallel Text”,
ISBN-10: 0143118331
ISBN-13: 978-0143118336 ,
at least I would pretty confidently guess so, judging by the references to Kristen’s review as well as the photos – I have recently bought that book as well. I’m only about at the second story’s end, but I can say, that one already is a good deal harder to comprehend than the first. Also compare 12 pages for the second to 2 for the first.
Nonetheless, it is absolutely possible, with the help of a dictionary, the english parallel text and sporadic lookups of grammar or set phrases. And it is super rewarding to read through two or three sentences in a row unaided, then compare with the translation and realize that you’ve grasped most of the meaning. Gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling :slight_smile: so I would recommend it without hesitation.
Also, I don’t think the “Read Real Japanese” series has already been mentioned? I have not tried those out myself yet, but I guess they might be somewhat more accessible, while still being “real” stories instead of specifically tailored textbook stuff? They include a little more help than just the parallel text, there is a tofugu article on them as well:

I ordered the book from Amazon yesterday, will come today.

A series I can recommend is イッキに読める - they’re made as reading practice for elementary students, and the stories are not “for children”, they’re mostly folk tales.
They’re available from Amazon JP, but I included a White Rabbit Press link here.

I’m also seriously feeling like I fall in the funny gap between reading textbooks (that are at my grammar level) and native materials. Is there anywhere online that just has short passages? Sort of like Satori Reader, but longer, yet not quite short story length.

Would N4/N3 prep books have passages like that? For instance, something that lets you to test your reading comprehension would be amaaaaazing. I feel like Satori Reader is great and all, but once you’ve read an article, all there is left to do is memorize vocab and review grammar points.

Part of the problem might be that these stories are too literary? I’ve found personally that books that are more lowbrow and silly, but are more straight up “this happened, then this happened” in their telling, are very readable at my level (I’ve finished Genki I and II).

I’ve been reading this book of spooky short stories – the Kindle edition was cheap, and they’re short and digestible. (And reading them on the Kindle app has the advantage of having the built-in dictionary to look up unfamiliar words without navigating away).

I have these books as well and they are pretty difficult. Trying to read something like this will certainly show you the difference between “textbook” japanese and the way ppl actually write. That being said, it was not clear from your post where your (at what level) your comprehension is breaking down but here are some suggestions.

You can think of grammar as having a couple of levels.
The first is morphology and syntax. This is recognizing what forms the words are in and what the roots are and the basic grammar constructs (things like ほうがいい、 ことがある、 て-form, なきゃだめ, etc.). This kind of stuff is going to be in any intro textbook. If you are struggling with things like this, resources like bunpro, or any of the good intro textbooks are a good thing to work on. I would also recommend getting a good grammar dictionary like DBJG or “Japanese sentence patterns for teacher and learners”.
From the wording of your post, I get the feeling that you are still unclear about some of the basic forms (these are the “sea of hiragana”).

The second part is semantics. Even when you have learned these forms, it is often far from clear what the meaning of a phrase or statement is. It is exactly this skill that the “read real japanese” series lets you practice.
As far as resources for learning about usage go:
The grammar dictionaries above will have alot of usage info.
I also really like “Expressive Japanese” by Maynard (this has alot of idiomatic usage relating to specific speech acts)
Another big resource that is helpful for learning usage is an online 英和辞典. weblio,jp and kotobank.jp both have japanese english dictionaries with example sentences. So you can search for a specific construction and get japanese sentences with translations back to english. This can give you a lot of clues as to usage.
And last but definitely not least, the web generally has tons of usage info directed at learners. If you search “usage of [japanese phrase or word]” or “[japanese phrase] japanese grammar” very often you will get a page describing the various usages.

The last thing I would say about this is that this reallly is the thing that takes practice. Meaning is constructed dfferently in japanese and english. There is no amount of kanji knowledge, or “grammar knowledge” that is going to make reading effortless. You really have to go through line by line and figure out why the japanese text “means” what the translator says it means.

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I second the suggestion of joining one of the beginner’s bookclubs on here, I think the community help and discussion is invaluable. We’re reading Natsume Yuujinchou but starting on The girl who leapt through time on the 13th if you want to join. I have the same problem as you and being able to post questions and benefit from other’s questions has made reading native material a lot less daunting.

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I also have this book. It’s a fantastic collection.

Some of those stories are for advanced readers, while others are for upper-intermediate.

There is a series of three study books called (in English): Enjoyable Task Reading in Japanese. They are divided into pre-intermediate, intermediate, and pre-advanced. (ISBN for last one is 978-4-89358-238-6)

They are collections of writings. The first book has writings made by the authors, the second and third are writings from the “real world”, edited down to a more readable level. However, the originals are also in the back of those books. Each story is accompanied with a series of instructions and reading exercises (all presented in Japanese), questions to answer. It’s honestly best to have a teacher or a partner to do them with, but they can be completed alone. It’s mostly great for reading.

Unrelated, I recently picked up a great book, (in Japanese) : あるようなないような

It’s a collection of short essays from the author (forgot name) they are very short, maybe 3,4 pages long, and interesting reads.

Either way, I recommend reading whatever you read several times, making notes in the actual book the first couple times you read it to mark down all the words/grammar points you don’t know, then reading it a few more times to have a more pleasant read (with the aid of your notes). I’ve read the first four stories of the book you posted a few times each, and gain more each time I read them, or realize more small details, remember words and expressions I forgot.

Hope sometime I mentioned can help. Glad some other people have that book. It’s great! :slight_smile: