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Reference Materials

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ちがいがわかる 類語使い分け辞典 by 松井栄一 is absolutely essential for the advanced learner. Ever wonder what the difference was between ぬれる、湿る、 and 潤う, or between 揺れる、揺らぐ、揺るぐ、and ぐらつく? How about 心配、気がかり and 不安? This book goes step-by-step through 501 groups of words explaining their similarities and differences using Venn diagrams and example sentences. While it is good to have at an intermediate level as well, the book is written entirely in Japanese, so if you’re not quite up to the advanced level yet, make sure you have a study buddy. There’s no preview on the Amazon website, so here’s a blurry page from my copy:

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Authentic Materials

Beginning

Intermediate

Keitai Shosetsu (literally “Cellphone Novels”) is a very unique genre of literature from Japan. They were originally written literally on and for flip phones of yore. Like Western fan-fiction, some became more popular than others, and many have hardcover or paperback versions in bookstores, and those (such as Koizora) which did exceedingly well even have movie franchises, etc. Most of these are written for middle and high school girls and center around over-dramatic love (or lack thereof) stories. While I cannot for the life of me recommend them for their story lines (they often romanticize very unhealthy relationships as an ideal standard for the youth–I myself bawled my eyes out at the Koizora movie in my days as a high school whippersnapper and then wrote an essay ripping it apart in college), I cannot recommend them enough for Japanese learning if you’re at a point where you want to read a story somewhat relevant to you (i.e. not a picture book or something aimed at 3rd graders). My reasoning is two-fold:

1) They’re like the Goldilocks of Japanese writing–since they’re aimed at young teenagers, the vocabulary isn’t too advanced, but still challenging enough if you’re at an intermediate level. The plots are also pretty easy to follow with vocabulary relating to everyday life–not like those SciFi, fantasy, or mystery books with complicated plots or vocabulary teaching you how to be a successful swordsman when you’re not even sure you can comfortably follow a Japanese recipe yet.
2) They’re often written heavily in casual Japanese, which is exceedingly rare in the written language. Sure you have those Japanese slang books, but this is one of the rare sources where you can see the words in action. Want to learn what your students are saying? I cannot stress this enough–study with these, at least every now and then. (Although make sure you find one that is recent enough–as with slang in any language, make sure you’re reading a version that’s at least somewhat current–you don’t want to go around calling everything “far-out” and “groovy” in Japanese.)

Therefore, if you can read through these with a discerning eye and not be too picky with a good plot, I highly recommend looking into some of these. (Just look for the non-manga section covered in flashy pink and rainbow colors at the bookstore.)

Advanced

If you are interested in breaking into authentic Japanese literature but don’t know who to start with, check out this list of 10 famous authors and try out a suggestion!

Higashino Keigo (東野圭吾) is also a great author to try out that’s not included in the link list above. He not only is one of the most popular and award-winning authors today and primarily writes mystery novels–but even within this, there is a lot of genre variation. Works like The Letter (手紙) (which follows the life of a young man trying to help his family survive accidentally murders an old woman and subsequently becomes estranged from society) The Lakeside (レイクサイド) (in which a man’s mistress is murdered at a lake resort during a study session of middle school students–and the parents go to great lengths to protect their children) aren’t the most uplifting works, but offer a satirical insight into current Japanese culture. Other novels such as Platina Data (プラチナデータ) are more sci-fi mysteries (and honestly a bit more useful if you’re just looking for entertainment from reading). Many of his works have turned into dramas and movies, so if you don’t know where to start, previewing a work with a live-action telling of it is a good way to go.

Tanizaki Jun’ichiro (谷崎潤一郎) is honestly one of my favorites if you’re looking for drama, drama drama–but very well written and crafted drama, drama drama. He’s like Natsume Soseki, but sexy. Many of his works center around erotic obsessions–a controversial taboo which is even more impressive when you realize he was writing primarily in the first half of the 20th century (if you notice a gap in publishing years for his later works, it’s because he was banned from publishing during WWII). My favorite so far has been The Key (鍵), which is basically the Japanese version of Dangerous Liaisons. Epistolary in form, in that all you see is the 2 diaries written in turn by a husband and wife–who aren’t reading each other’s, but they are, but they aren’t, but one is, but both are, but one isn’t (repeat)–it tells of the couple going through a lot of problems–primarily in the bedroom–but which extend out to their (triangle) relationship as a whole. While there are a couple editions of this book, I recommend finding one of the originals that preserves the husband’s diary entries in their original katakana- and kanji-exclusive form (it takes a while to get used to, but get that much-needed katakana practice in!).
Another great one by Tanizaki is Quicksand (the Japanese title being 卍 or まんじ), but I honestly recommend just reading this one in English (which I rarely ever do)–unless you have an incredibly thorough grasp of intense Osaka-ben (and not just the やs and ねんs and せやなs–I mean a thorough, thorough grasp. If you’re not sure where you stand, try out the preview in this Amazon version, although once the story and dialogue starts, so do the complexities of the Osaka-ben). This one is about a four-way bisexual love affair laced with (as you may be able to infer) obsession and jealousy among Osaka’s elite. It’s a gripping and relatively short read originally published serially, and even has a Nazi Germany movie adaption based off it. Also epistolary (told exclusively by the main character to a teacher), this isn’t really as directly erotic as it is dramatic–after all, this was written in the 20’s and 30’s–with most of the details being left to the reader’s imagination.

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