Want to read Japanese language books, but don’t know where to begin?
Then you’ve reached the right article!
Here are some of my favorite novels and books that I read as a Japanese language learner!
These selections are geared towards Japanese language learners with basic knowledge of Japanese grammar and sentence structure. They aim to widen the scope of vocabulary and to deepen the understanding of Japanese language structure.
I will begin by introducing some of the easier Japanese language books, gradually moving towards more intermediate and advanced selections.
Read these top choices of Japanese language books, and you are bound to master Japanese in no time!
I know what you’re thinking.
“But this isn’t in Japanese!”
Indeed, this first book is not written in Japanese, but it offers a unique insight into the Japanese language through the use of manga. While the content is written in English, the book contains various examples of Japanese manga dialogue with explanations on its significance.
For instance, what sound effect does “くかー” represent? In what social situations should you use “です” and “だ”?
These are just two of the 200+ brief lessons on Japanese language structure and use that are introduced through manga in the book!
I would recommend this to language learners who want to learn about the context of the Japanese language when used in society, as well as anyone who loves to read manga!
Japanese Folk Tales for Children（子どもとよむ日本の昔ばなし）
Who doesn’t love traditional folk tales!
This series contains 12 storybooks that tell the tale of age-old Japanese folklore. Since the books are written for younger audiences, the words are very simple and easy to read. Moreover, you can learn about the Japanese culture through stories that have been passed down in the country through generations!
If you finish the first series, there is also a second version of the series that tells the stories of 12 more Japanese folk tales!
My advice is to read these stories out loud as if you are narrating each scene to an audience. Since storybooks are full of easy-yet-dramatic vocabulary, they will help you practice adding emotion and personality to your phrasings when you speak Japanese!
By capturing the technique of reading short and easy storybooks, you can prepare yourself to read more complicated Japanese novels!
Stories You Can Read Smoothly (イッキによめる！)
If you are looking for a structured anthology of short stories, this selection may be more suitable for you.
Stories You Can Read Smoothly is made up of short stories that take around 15 minutes or less to read. The first volume consists of nine stories that are aimed at grade-1 readers, with a clear purpose of teaching beginners how to read. Thus these books contain furigana to accompany the kanji and give explanations for difficult terminology. Since it is designed to teach young readers, there are quizzes at the end of each story to test your knowledge and understanding of the context.
Moreover, each story contains illustrations by Yoshiyuki Momose, the renowned animator of Ghibli Studios! What better way to enjoy the telling of beautiful Japanese short stories!
Harry Potter Series（ハリーポッター）
That’s right! This work is a classic in any language, including Japanese!
If you’ve never read the infamous series, then this is your chance to join the mob of fans, all while learning Japanese!
Even if you’ve read the series in your native language, this is still a recommended read! Trust me, I was the same! I had already read the English version of the series, but I decided to reread the Japanese version afterward. Since I knew the complicated plot, other-worldly names, and sorcery jargon used in the story, I could easily move through the Japanese version at a good pace without getting confused.
What’s so great about reading the Japanese version of Harry Potter is that the target age group for the books is grades six through ten. This means that many of the complicated kanji have furigana over them. Moreover, even against the complicated plotline of the actual story, the language used to convey it is very straightforward and simple.
I would recommend reading the Japanese version of Harry Potter to current and potential fans of the exciting story!
Novels Based on Ghibli Films (文春ジブリ文庫）
If you have an interest in learning Japanese, then I’m assuming that you’ve watched at least one of the highly acclaimed Ghibli films.
Did you know that these animated films have literature adaptations as well?
Indeed, almost all of the popular Ghibli films have literature adaptations referred to as Bunshun Ghibli Bunko (文春ジブリ文庫). These books tell the exact same plotline as the story depicted in their respective film adaptations.
Reading these books is great for learning Japanese since you can rely on the film adaptations to compare the literary descriptions. How do authors describe Howl’s castle? How would one explain the facial expressions on Chiharu‘s face when she finally reunites with her parents? By watching the film and reading the books, you can understand how the Japanese words describe each scene.
Before moving on to the next section, let me introduce some of my favorite novel-adaptations of Ghibli fims.
Howl’s Moving Castle（ハウルの動く城）
This tale is a story of love, trust, and friendship between an 18-year-old girl named Sophie, cursed by a witch into an old woman’s body, and a magician named Howl. The story begins with Sophie setting out on an adventure to break her curse, which takes her to Howl’s strange moving castle. Sophie befriends the house’s fire demon named Calicifer, who promises to reverse her curse for one catch: she must free Calicifer from Howl.
I recommend you to listen to the animation soundtrack while reading the novel. The main theme is especially beautiful!
Grave of the Fireflies（火垂るの墓）
Setsuko (aged 4) and Seita (aged 14) are siblings living in wartime Japan. After their mother is killed in an air raid they leave the city and make their home in an abandoned shelter. With no one to depend on except each other, the two must somehow keep a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs. Under the harsh conditions of wartime Japan, they gradually succumb to hunger, and their only entertainment is the dim lights of the fireflies.
WARNING: This is a real tear-jerker. Prepare extra tissues, especially near the end!
Set in the Muromachi period, Princess Mononoke follows the journey of the last Emishi prince, Ashitaka, and his journey to realize peace between the human settlement Irontown and the creatures living in the forest that surrounds it. In this quest, he also meets San, the Mononoke Hime.
It is a beautiful fairy tale full of mythical creatures, beautiful forests, sparkling waterfalls, heart-wrenching war…and slaughter. Just listen to the film’s theme song, “The Legend of Ashitaka”, and you’ll understand the mystical mood of the film!
Kiki’s Delivery Service（魔女の宅急便）
This story follows Kiki, a teenage witch-in-training who has reached the age of 13. According to tradition, all witches of that age must leave home for one year to learn how to live on their own. Thus, Kiki takes her talking cat Jiji to live in the seaside town of Koriko, where she starts her own delivery service …using a flying broom?
The best aspect of this story is that, though she is a witch, Kiki is a relatable character. Man or woman, there is a little bit of Kiki’s journey in all of us, since we have all faced the internal perils of having to face maturity. This makes the concepts, themes, and messages of the novel very relatable and easy to follow.
The Castle in the Sky（天空の城ラピュタ）
Set in the Victorian era, this story follows Pazu, the apprentice of the engineer who maintains a mine’s elevator machinery. One fateful night, a girl named Sheeta floats down from the sky into his arms. Her magical levitation-stone pendant holds the key to a mysterious, mythical sky-castle known as Laputa. Sheeta and Pazu must flee from both air-pirates, who seek the sky kingdom for its legendary treasure, and the army, led by a government agent.
From Up on Poppy Hill (コクリコ坂から)
Set in 1963 Yokohama, the film tells the story of Umi Matsuzaki, a high school girl living in a boarding house, ‘Coquelicot Manor’. Umi and Shun Kazama, a member of the school’s newspaper club, decide to clean up the school’s clubhouse. However, the chairman of the local high school intends to demolish the building for redevelopment in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics. Umi and Shun, along with Shirō Mizunuma, must save their precious building from being demolished.
The theme of this story seems to capture the issue of cultural degradation in pursuit of large-scale urbanization schemes. As I am writing this article from Tokyo in 2021, I can attest to the fact that the Tokyo Olympics is also a relatable and interesting point of the story.
3000 Words Left to Live （余命3000文字）
Published only in 2020, this book is a newly released anthology of 26 short stories by Murasaki Gyatei. Each story is independent of the others, but they all contain the same quality of irony, metaphors, and plot twists.
In addition to the titular piece “3000 Words to Live”, there are other eye-catching titles like “My Boyfriend Became a Tuna Can”, “Laundromat for the Heart”, “Tabelog 1.8 Ramen”, and “Laughing Bridge”. While some are lighthearted and funny, others are deeply emotional tear-jerkers.
I recommend this book because each story is meant to be read within 5 to 10 minutes. It is satisfying to be able to finish a story within one sitting, and this can create motivation to keep reading more Japanese novels!
Learning from Japanese Language Books
Who said Japanese language books needed to be boring?
With the selections listed above, I hope that you can start your exciting adventure in the world of Japanese language and literature!
Do you have any recommended works for international students or foreign learners wanting to learn Japanese through Japanese language books? Make sure to leave them in the comments section below!
For more tips and recommendations on Japanese written works, you can visit my article on Japanese Language Books. See you there!