Light novels（小説）are wonderful study tools for anyone looking for non-traditional and creative Japanese language books. Not only does it put Japanese grammar into real use, but it also tells a story that encourages readers to keep reading. As a Japanese language learner myself, I favor Japanese light novels over any other Japanese language book on my shelf!
So how should you get started? In this article, I will introduce several tips on choosing and reading Japanese light novels.
TIP #1: Choose Slice-of-Life Novels
Slice-of-life stories present a seemingly arbitrary sequence of events in a character’s life. Some examples include stories on high school life, office drama, and even some supernatural first-person narratives that depict regular daily routines.
While this genre may seem bland in comparison to science fiction and historical counterparts, the “normalness” of the stories has something deeper to offer. It provides glimpses into the Japanese lifestyles of typically Japanese characters. Not distracted by flashy scenes and technical jargon, the slice-of-life style reveals the life of a Japanese character in beautifully woven detail.
Slice-of-life is easy to read for beginners in the Japanese language since it avoids technical topics and out-of-date vocabulary. Because its main purpose is to depict the character’s life in detail, this genre also typically includes trendy phrases and goods that readers of the 21st Century, no matter the country, can relate to.
With that said, slice-of-life novels are not necessarily depictions of “average” life. On the contrary, in order to cover for the lack of sci-fi action, the characters typically have unique conflicts that run against the plot of the story. Moreover, many slice-of-life novels have elements of supernatural fiction that accompany the otherwise normal life of the protagonist.
TIP #2: Start With Newer Light Novels
I recommend you to pick up a light novel written within the last 50 years, and the more recent the better. I say this for several reasons.
Firstly, lifestyle changes with time. Authors of the older generation tend to have very distinct perspectives on life and mannerisms, those that differ from our expectations today. Some concepts and behaviors of characters in older books may be hard to grasp for current readers, and empathy for the characters may never properly develop.
Secondly, Japanese language learners should look for novels with sentence structure that is close to present-day grammar. Books written before the Second World War and even in the early postwar periods have old wordings and phrases that people no longer use in Japan. Moreover, even if the terminology used were to be the same, the style of speech utilized by characters of earlier works tend to follow an older pattern.
Lastly, newer works tend to depict scenes and characters that reflect the current culture and society of Japan. Reading novels written by authors living in the same era offer an opportunity for readers to relate to the events of the story. The vocabulary and behavioral patterns used in such familiar scenes are what will become handy for Japanese language learners hoping to travel to Japan in the future!
TIP #3: Start With These Titles…
This section is less a tip and more of a “recommendation corner”. I will briefly introduce 3 light novels that suit beginners who are looking for easy Japanese language books.
1. Kino’s Journey
This tale follows a boy named Kino who wanders around the world on an unusual, talking, anthropomorphic motorcycle. In each fictitious country, Kino stays for three days, solving conflicts and learning life lessons along the way.
There are currently 21 volumes published in this series.
2. Kiki’s Delivery Service
This children’s light novel follows the story of Kiki, a young witch who must use her magic abilities to earn her living. Readers will be pleasantly surprised to find new characters and plotlines that were not included in the Ghibli anime adaption!
3. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
While this is a young-adult novel, the writing style allows even beginners in Japanese to follow along with the plotline. It tells the story of Mikage an orphan raised by her grandmother. After the loss of her grandmother, Mikage moves in with her friend Yoichi and his mother (actually his cross-dressing father) Eriko. This slice-of-life story depicts the up-and-down of this improvised family.
TIP # 4: Keep a Digital Dictionary Handy
Since light novels are written for Japanese readers, they inevitably include advanced terminology and intermediate kanji. But fear not! You can use a digital dictionary to look up unfamiliar words and letters.
I recommend you download the free “Google Translate” app on your mobile phone. Not only does it have up-to-date translations, but this app also has a drawing feature that allows you to trace the shape of an unknown kanji into the search engine. This is very convenient for non-Japanese readers who often do not know how to pronounce the kanji!
If your mobile device does not support the “Google Translate” app, you can always use the online version on your browser!
TIP #5: Try Reading Along With Audiobooks
If you are not comfortable with reading Japanese, you can always accomodate your readings with audiobooks. This allows you to keep a good pace while mentally digesting the Japanese characters and writing styles. Simply following along with the written text will improve your reading skills without having to stop every few lines to look up an unknown kanji.
As a Japanese language learner myself, I tend to read the novel with an audiobook through my first read. Then, I like to go back and see how much of the novel I can read on my own. While I used to repeat this technique for every chapter, I now tend to read the entire book with the audiobook and then go back to skim the novel after some time has passed. This way, I understand the plot of the story and can concentrate on my reading skills during my second skim!
For more details on finding and reaing audiobooks, you can visit my article Listening to Japanese Language Books: Best Way to Learn Japanese with Free Audiobooks | SchooLynk Media.
TIP #6: Try Novels with Adaptations
It can be difficult to enter the world of a novel, especially when it’s not written in your first language! If you are looking for motivation to start reading a Japanese language book, why not try opening a novel with film and drama adaptations? After watching the characters and becoming familiar with the setting of the story, you will definitely feel at ease when reading about them in a Japanese novel!
My advice is to watch trailers, short clips, and maybe even the first few episodes of the adapted version without completing the entire series. This way, there wil be elements of surprise when you are reading the novel! I also like to listen to the soundtrack of the film or drama adaptation when reading the novel!
TIP #7: Join a Japanese Book Club
One of the most difficult parts of reading a novel is finding the motivation to keep going, especially when the story is told in a foreign language. It doesn’t even need to be in-person or live events.
Some book clubs post weekly recommendations and scheduled goals for followers of the page to join and leave freely. This helps foreign readers to find great reads and plan a reading schedule!
For instance, Japanese Book Club Cafe makes blogs on book recommendations and even provides insights into the contents of the novel in English! Moreover, you can pace yourself using the timeline that the blogger posts for each title.
TIP #8: Search For Novels By Genre
While it is commendable to start reading great classics and bestsellers, some of these titles may be overly abstract or too complicated for a Japanese beginner. Award-winning titles also tend to contain complex literary elements that is hard to enjoy for non-native speakers.
Instead of searching for novels by their prestige or popularity, it might be better to focus your search on your preferences. Insetad of searching “best Japanese novels”, try adding genre phrases like “action”, “romance”, “thriller”, or “comedy”. This will direct you to genres of books that you’ll most definitely enjoy!
TIP #9: Have a Reading Buddy
While this tip requires you to find another avid reader, it is definitely worth the hassle! Your buddy can be a native Japanese speaker or a non-native speaker. Either way, you can get the motivation and the sense of comradery to help you through your reading journey!
Buddies are also helpful when putting what you’ve read into your own words. They force you to voice your opinions and interpretations of the novel. Why not try finding a book buddy on social media? Perhaps users who follow accounts like those of Japanese language schools and Japanese literature may be the perfect target to start your hunt!
TIP # 10: Mark Unfamiliar Kanji As You Go
For me, tripping on unfamiliar kanji is the hardest part of reading a Japanese novel. If this is your case, I recommend that you highlight or mark any unknown kanji with colorful ink as you read through each chapter!
I like to initially read the entire chapter without stopping to look up the kanji. I simply tag it with a highlighter. Upon finishing the chapter, I return and look up the specific kanji that I could not figure out. This way, I do not need to keep stopping at each complicated kanji.
This may not be the best option for everyone. If you prefer to understand the entire scene, word for word, then it may be better to look up each kanji as you go. This may depend on your preference of reading style, as well as your current level of kanji.
Light Novels: The Best Type of Japanese Language Books
As a Japanese language learner, I can attest to the fact that Japanese light novels significantly improved my kanji, reading comprehension, and even writing skills. I can take an idea in English and transform it into Japanese that I encounter in various novels.
If you are looking for a creative alternative to the traditional Japanese language books, Japanese light novels are the waiting for you!