Want to learn Japanese without boring textbooks and difficult lectures? Let’s read Japanese language books with native Japanese speakers!

How did you learn your first language? Did you stick your little nose in a textbook all day? Did you attend classes taught by language professionals? I’m assuming none of these were the case, at least judging from my personal experience.

MY EXPERIENCE: I was born in Japan but grew up in the US. In order to keep up with my Japanese language skills, I read Japanese folk tales and short stories throughout my childhood…and even into my adulthood!

Short stories are one of the easiest ways to learn Japanese. For one, they are easy and fun to read. More importantly, storytelling is a universal skill that sets the base of any conversation. Be it to explain the situation of a car accident to an officer or to reflect on a good childhood memory with friends, people often convey their thoughts in the form of a brief story!

In this article, we will read the Japanese language book “ネズミにだまされたネコ(The Cat Fooled by the Rat” together. This story provides an explanation to the age-old myth: why is the cat not one of the 12 zodiacs? The digital copy is from E-Douwa, a website that provides copies of various Japanese language books and short stories! I’ll provide translations of key phrases and uncover the ways I would tackle each section of the text. Read on to learn the structure and context of Japanese storytelling, and don’t forget to enjoy the story!

My favorite Japanese language book: ネズミにだまされたネコ(Nezumi ni Damasareta Neko

~The Cat Fooled by the Rat~

Japanese story book

ネズミにだまされたネコ
ゆかいな話

絵:むらよしみ
ディレクション:新官文明
レイアウト:渋谷良久
制作:株式会社シティプラン
The following excerpts are from E-Douwa.
http://www.e-douwa.com/mobile/japan/rat-cat/index.html
むかしむかし、まだ人間が
この世に いなかった 大むかしの お話です。
ある時 神さまが 言いました。

Once upon a time, when humans
did not yet exist in the world,
the god said,

むかしむかし is a common phrase used in Japanese fairytales. In this context, まだ人間が この世に いなかった is an adverb phrase that describes 大むかし. It describes a time in the deep past (大むかし) in which human did not yet exist (まだ人間が この世に いなかった).

Likewise, 大むかしの is an adjective phrase that describes the noun お話. I think of です to mean “It is/was(are/were)”, but placed at the very end of the sentence.

ある時 means “one time”, where “one” is taken generally, not a one specific time. 神さま is the subject, が is the identifier that attributes the predicate to the subject, and 言いました is the predicate. As one phrase, it translates as “the god said”.

「そうだ、こよみと いうものが 
あれば 便利だな。そして 
1年ごとに 動物たちに 決まった 
仕事を あたえよう」

"It would be useful to have 
a calendar system.
Every year, I'll assign a task to 
each one of my animals."

Notice that 「…」are used for quotation marks in Japanese dialogues. そうだ、is used as an interjection that means “Oh right!”.

こよみ is a noun that means “calendar system”. こよみと いうもの means “something called a calendar system”. あれば means “exists”, and 便利だな means “it would be useful”. So putting it together, we get a sentence that means “it would be useful if something called a calendar system existed”.

そして is like the conjunction “and”. 1年ごとに is a phrase meaning “each year”. 動物たちに is a prepositional phrase meaning “to the animals”, and it also acts as the indirect object of the sentence. 決まった is an adjective meaning “specific” or “pre-determined” that describes the noun 仕事. 仕事を is the direct object that, in Japanese, is placed before the transitive verb, in this case, あたえよう. Lastly, を is the conjunction that connects the direct object.

神さまは 動物たちに 言いました。
「今度、こよみを 作るので、
1月1日の朝、わたしの いる山へ 
来なさい。先に 来た順に 12番目まで 
その年の 王さまに しよう」

The god said to the animals,
"Now, I will make a calendar system,
so on the morning of January 1st, 
come to my mountain. I'll allow the 
first 12 animals to arrive to become 
the king for one year."

By now, you may have started picking up the structure of Japanese sentences. For this excerpt, let’s focus on the “conjunction” that indicates the usage of words in the text.

Let’s take the sentence 神さまは 動物たちに 言いました, or “The god said to the animals” or “The god told the animals”. は tends to follow the subject or the thing that “does” the action. In this case, に is used after the indirect object. ました is used after the verb or action.

Now let’s see the clause 今度、こよみを 作るので、1月1日の朝、わたしの いる山へ 来なさい。 を is used to indicate that こよみ is a direct object for the verb, 作る. ので is often used after a verb to mean “since”.

Skipping forward, we see that へ is used to indicate that わたしの いる山, “the mountain that I live on”, is the destination TO which the animals must go.

Lastly, we analyze 先に 来た順に 12番目まで その年の 王さまに しよう」. In 先に, に is used after 先 (first) to make an adverb phrase that describes a condition in which the animals 来た (arrives). In 来た順に, the に is once again used to indicate that a certain condition preceded it. However, we see that in 王さまに, に is used to indicate that 王さま is the indirect object. まで often means “until”. 12番目まで means “until the 12th place”.

ところが、ネコは ひるねを していたのですね。
あくびを しながら、ネズミに 神さまの 
ところへ ゆく日を たずねると、

「1月1日の つぎの日だよ」
とネズミは うそを 教えました。

However, the cat had been taking a nap.
Yawning, he asked the rat
what day the animals were to go to meet the god.

"The day after January 1st,"
the rat lied.

Just an FYI, the rat lied because he wanted less competition. The god would only assign one year of the calendar to the first 12 animals that arrived. I never really understood this section when I was younger, so I thought I’d explain!

ところが means “however”. しながら means “while doing (something)”. あくびを しながら would meanwhile yawning. ゆく is often said as 行く(いく)and means “to go”. In narrative stories, ゆく is often used. Whenever a verb –る is followed by と, it makes the clause that preceded it into (sort of) a subjunctive clause. It gives the nuance of “when…” and is usually followed by a clause explaining what happened afterward. In this case, when the cat asked, the mouse answered with a lie (ねこが たずねる、ネズミが うそを 教えました).

さて、1月1日の 朝が 来ました。
ウシは 「わしは 足が おそいから
早く出よう。」と
暗いうちに 家を 出ました。

あれ…!
ウシの 背中には ネズミが
ちゃっかり のっています。

Alas, the first of Januray finally came.
The cow thought, "I am slow,
so I better leave early", 
and he left the house before sunrise.

Wait...!
The rat is nonchalantly sitting 
on top of the cow!

Using the techniques we used in the previous sections, I think you can guess what each part of the excerpt means. I’ll provide a few notable pointers.

“Cow” is written in katakana as ウシ in the excerpt, but it is usually written in kanji as 牛. The same goes for cat 猫.

The interjection あれ…!is used to mean “oops!” with a certain nuance of confusion.

ウシが 神さまの 山に つくと、
ネズミは 急いで とびおり、
一年目の 王さまに なりました。

When the cow arrived at the god's mountain,
the rat hurriedly jumped off,
and he became the king for the first year.

Did you notice the use of と in the first line as a conjunction to connect the two clauses? If so, that’s awesome!

The “first year” in this section refers to first of the twelve years in the zodiac cycle. After the twelveth year, the calendar goes back to Year One, the year of the rat.

Japanese story book

illustration of 12 zodiac animals

ネズミにだまされたネコ
ゆかいな話
The rest of the 12 zodiacs showing up at the mountain…
http://www.e-douwa.com/mobile/japan/rat-cat/index.html
二年目の 王さまには ウシがなり、
それから トラ・ウサギ・タツなどが
ぞろぞろ やってきて、12番目に
イノシシが 来ると…

みんなは 神さまから 順番に、
それぞれの 年の 王さまに
なることを 告げられました。

The cow became the king of the second year.
The tiger, rabbit, dragon, and others followed,
and the boar arrived last at 12th place...

Based on the order of their arrival,
the animals were crowned as the king 
for one year by the god.

Notice that dots are used between トラ・ウサギ・タツ to act as a comma for the list. Instead of conjunction like “and”, the excerpt uses など to mean “of the like”, thus signifying that this is a list of the animals.

次の日の朝…
ネコは 神さまの ところへ 行きました。

ところが 神さまは
「おや、ずいぶん
おそかったじゃないか」と、
言いました。

「悪いが 王さまになる
12番目までの 動物は、
きのう すべて
決めて しまったのだよ」と、
残念そうに 言いました。

The next morning...
The cat went to go see the god.

However, the god said,
"Oh my, you are very late."

"I'm sorry, but all 12 of the open 
posiitons to become king for the year
was chosen yesterday," the god said
with a sad sigh.

The word ずいぶん emphasizes the adjective or adverb following it. It may translate literally as “quite” in English, with the connotation of “to a large extent”.

The phrase 残念そうに is used before a verb to indicate that the actions were done in a regretful or sad manner. そうに after an adjective is often used for this purpose. For instance, 嬉しそうに 言った means “to say in a happy manner”.

「ネズミめ、うそを 教えあがったな!」
ネコは かんかんに 怒りました。
それからと いうもの、ネズミを 見ると
必ず 追いかけるように なりました。

そして 二度と ねぼけないように、
いつも 前足で 顔を
こするように なったようです。

"How dare the rat lie to me!"
The cat was furious.
Ever since this incident, whenever he
saw the rat, the cat would chase it.

And in order to never sleep through 
important events again, the cat would 
rub his eyes with his paws.

かんかんに 怒る is a common phrase used in Japan to mean “extremely furious”.

The ending of the book tries to tie the story to why cats chase rats and rub their eyes with their paws. Most importantly, it is a clever telling of the origins of the 12 zodiacs!

Wasn’t this the easiest way to learn Japanese?

I hope you enjoyed reading the Japanese short story “ネズミにだまされたネコ(The Cat Fooled by the Rat!

Not only can you learn the grammatical structure of the vocabulary of the Japanese language, but you can also learn about the Japanese culture! Reading short stories and Japanese language books is a treat for language learners!

The key to reading a Japanese story is simple:

  • space out each phrase and try assigning a part of speech to each phrase
  • look for common conjunctions
  • take note of idiomatic phrases and sayings
  • try reading Japanese language books that have cultural significance to Japan

Follow these tips, and you’ve found the secret for the easiest way to learn Japanese!