Published by Kodansha on 2008
Genres: Japanese literature, Non-fiction
There is a dramatic difference between reading Japanese that is tailored to students, and reading real Japanese that has been written for native speakers. The concocted variety tends to be insipid, flat, stiff, standardized, completely lacking in exciting and imaginative use of language. Read Real Japanese Essays allows readers to experience the work of several of today's foremost writers as if they were lifelong Japanese speakers.
Among Japanese learning material aimed at foreigners, this book is definitely one of the better ones. The book contains eight essays by (relatively) popular authors, such as Haruki Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto and Yoko Ogawa.
The set-up of this book works perfectly. Each essay contains a short introduction in English with some background information on the author. Then after that, on the right page we get the essay, with furigana the first time you encounter the more difficult kanji. The left side has, not exactly translations but rather, interpretations of the more difficult sentences. Finally in the back of the book we get a dictionary of the words found in the essays, followed by grammatical and contextual notes on each essay.
Clearly someone has thought long and hard on the structure of the book and it works (unlike a lot of bilingual parallel texts). The dictionary in the back may sound inconvenient – I for one do not like going back and forth in a book to look up things. However, I found I rarely needed the dictionary thanks to the translations on the left page. This can also be a bit of a disadvantage. The book is set up in such a way that you can choose to focus only on the essays on the right side pages, but the reader might have to restrain themselves from glancing at the translations on the left page.
The Japanese level of the essays is quite high. Being at N2, some of the essays were relatively easy to read, while others (mostly due to the vocabulary) really challenged me. In that sense the level was perfect for me. I like texts that are readable, but I also want to challenge myself to level-up! It’s refreshing to read texts that were not written with foreign learners in mind, but are, well, real Japanese.
Honestly, I am quite enthusiastic about this book. And best of all, there is a companion to this book: Read Real Japanese Fiction (which in retrospect I wish I had started with).
Now, as for the content of the essays, I did not enjoy them all equally. This is the only reason I gave the book 4 instead of 5 stars. Click through for my (quick) opinion on each of the essays.
Haruki Murakami – Little White Lies
Being the first story, Murakami’s essay on lying is perfect to start the book with. Murakami’s style is pretty easy to read so it gives the reader some confidence in reading. A nice, short and fun essay.
Junko Sakai – Admonishing Young People on the Train
In contrast to Murakami’s opening essay, Sakai’s essay on manners on trains was pretty boring. But it helps that it’s an accessible topic everyone knows something about and has an opinion on.
Mitsuya Kakuta – On Cooking
This essay was actually really funny. Kakuta explains her feelings about men cooking. This essay was definitely a bit more challenging (vocab-wise) than the first two, but it’s worth it.
Banana Yoshimoto – On Beauty
I was looking forward to Yoshimoto’s essay but ended up finding it pretty boring. It’s a daily scenario that Yoshimoto is describing, something she is usually quite good at. However, maybe it’s just me. All of Yoshimoto’s works I am reading lately leave me disappointed…
Kou Machida – No Matter How He Writes, a Creep Is Still a Creep
This essay starts off a bit… whiny, almost. However, it ends up being really funny and very accurate. Also a good practice for readers of Japanese: the essay talks about the tone of Japanese texts.
Yoko Ogawa – Concerning “The Professor’s Beloved Equation”
This essay was a bit challenging but I really, really enjoyed it! It’ll be especially fun for those readers who have read Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, as she talks about random things related to that book. At the time Read Real Japanese Essays was published, The Housekeeper and the Professor had not yet been translated. Good for us that now it has: it makes the essay a lot of fun to read for those interested in Ogawa’s work.
Keiichiro Hirano – Thoughts on Mutability
Ugh. I got through about 75% of this essay and then gave up. The style is definitely not to my taste, and also quite challenging: long sentences that go on and on, and clearly Hirano is known for his extensive use of kanji. That in itself was tiresome, but if the text at least had been interesting I think I could’ve managed. However, for me it was a load of blah, an opinion on people’s opinions on how Kyoto is changing.
Hideo Levy – Living in the Land of the “Bungakusha”
I ended up finding this (surprisingly readable) text more interesting that I was expecting, but I expect most people won’t agree with me. Levy talks about Japanese-English translation issues as well as the Japanese literary world.