Inhae reads the news: February 2020

Welcome to a new article in my series “Inhae reads the news (in Japanese!)”.

In this series, I compare editorials from different newspapers and study some passages. As I mentioned it last month, I find extremely interesting to compare what conservative and left-wing newspapers say on the same topic. I will read editorials from the following newspapers (links to the list of editorials):

I will choose topics on which at least three of these newspapers have written an editorial. I will also limit myself to three topics per month because reading the news in Japanese and writing this post still take me a lot of time.

As always, I have to warn you that there might be mistakes in my translations as well as in my understanding of the social/political issues I talk about. This post is like a personal notebook where I try to improve my reading skills in Japanese, my knowledge of current issues, and my English!

This month’s topics:

  • Japanese destroyer left for the Middle East
  • Abe’s heckling and the role of the Diet
  • Tsukasa Akimoto released on bail

(Of course, this month’s main topic for all newspapers was the coronavirus, but I was tired to read about it so I deliberately chose other themes.)

Japanese destroyer left for the Middle East

Several newspapers have devoted an editorial to the dispatch of the MSDF (Maritime Self Defense Force) destroyer Takanami to the Middle East. The destroyer will join an ongoing intelligence gathering mission. The government said that the mission’s purpose is to ensure the safety of ships trading with Japan in the Middle East region, especially oil tankers that deliver oil to Japan.

Yomiuri: 海自艦中東へ 円滑な部隊運用の態勢整えよ
Mainichi: 海自護衛艦が中東へ 「一般化」してはならない
Tokyo: 自衛隊中東派遣 国会の関与が不十分だ

Useful vocabulary and persons involved:

海上自衛隊かいじょうじえいたいMaritime Self-Defense Force
護衛艦ごえいかんdestroyer, escort vessel
情報収集じょうほうしゅうしゅうintelligence gathering
出航しゅっこうdeparture, setting sail
船舶せんぱくvessel, ship
せきcounter for ships, vessels
通航するつうこうsail, navigate
派遣するはけんdispatch, deploy
航行するこうこうnavigate, sail
船籍せんせきthe nationality of a ship
艦艇かんていwar vessels
閣議決定かくぎけっていCabinet decision
武力衝突ぶりょくしょうとつmilitary conflict
駐留ちゅうりゅうstationing (troops)
河野太郎 Taro Kono
Minister of Defense
Member of the House of Representatives, LDP

First, Yomiuri starts by justifying the dispatch of the vessel:


Japan relies on the Middle East for the majority of its imports in oil. More than 3000 vessels [commercially] related to Japan sail through the territorial waters of the Middle East per year. It is only natural that the government should actively engage in preserving the security of the commercial maritime routes and deploy the Self-Defense Force.

It then explains that the MSDF alone will only have a limited range of action. The major concern for the Japanese government is the protection of the oil tankers that provide Japan in oil and sail through the Middle East. But if these tankers were attacked, the destroyer would not be able to defend them, being officially in a mission of research (調査・研究). The government could then issue an order for “海上警備行動”, but even then the destroyer would only be able to protect Japanese ships. The Yomiuri underlines the necessity to prepare for any scenario.

If I understand it correctly, the 海上警備行動 can be ordered by the Defense Minister if the security of Japanese lives or properties are being threatened. It allows the MSDF to take necessary actions to maintain security, but I don’t know concretely what it means. The last time the 海上警備行動 was issued was in 2009, against piracy off the coast of Somalia. (see Wikipedia)

The Yomiuri never mentions that the decision to deploy the MSDF in the Middle East was taken by the Cabinet only, without going through the Diet. This is a major point of criticism for left-wing newspapers.

Mainichi and Tokyo both acknowledge the importance to ensure the safety of commercial ships, but they criticise the way the decision was taken. Mainichi says:


Deploying an armed force to foreign seas is a heavy political decision. It should have gone through thorough discussions in the Diet, but the government has made the decision through Cabinet discussions in last December, and on January 10th Defense Minister Taro Kono ordered the dispatch.

Tokyo also underlines the fact that the dispatch has been decided by the Cabinet only:


The decision was taken by the Cabinet only, without going through the vote of the Diet that represents the people. Isn’t the participation of the Diet insufficient?

Normally, the dispatch of the SDF is limited by the Constitution. However, it now looks like the government can dispatch troops anytime under the flag of “research” and without going through Diet deliberations.

Mainichi insists on this point:


But, in the Constitution, the Self-Defense Force is forbidden to use weapons in foreign seas, and its deployment in dangerous territories and maritime territories is restricted by the law. If we can deploy forces when we want and where we want under the flag of “research”, we are gradually getting closer to a regular army.

Tokyo voices a similar concern:


There is no guarantee that there won’t be other dispatches in foreign seas that are for research and do not pass through deliberations and resolutions in the Diet.

Even though Abe assured that this kind of dispatch will not be generalised, it still creates a precedent (先例) as Asahi, who also devoted an editorial to this topic, points out.

Abe’s heckling and the role of the Diet

On February 12th, during a Lower House Budget Committee session, Abe heckled the lawmaker Kiyomi Tsujimoto saying that her questions were meaningless. She was tackling Abe on several points of controversy like the Cherry Blossom Party or the Mori-Kake scandals and ended her questions by saying: 鯛(たい)は頭から腐る。(The right way of saying it would have been 魚は頭から腐る, it apparently comes from a Russian proverb. Kiyomi Tsujimoto used 鯛 instead of 魚 and apparently, there have been some discussions about the meaning of it.)

In any case, this is when Abe heckled her with his 意味のない質問だよ.

Several newspapers are concerned about the role of the Diet.

Sankei: 首相のやじと野党 国会の機能不全は論外だ
Asahi: 荒涼たる国会 安倍首相の責任は重い
Tokyo: 首相のやじ 国会を冒涜する暴言だ

Useful vocabulary and persons involved:

猛省を促すもうせいを うながすurge sb to reconsider seriously
懲罰動議ちょうばつどうぎ(pass) a motion to discipline
罵詈雑言ばりぞうごんabusive language
締めくくるしめくくるconclude, bring to a conclusion
采配さいはいcommand (so’s command)
弊害へいがいabuse, evil practice
独善どくぜんself-complacency, self-flattery
辻元清美 Kiyomi Tsujimoto
Member of the House of Representatives
Member of the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP)

Sankei starts its editorial by establishing what the Diet stands for and by expressing concerns that today’s Diet is different:


The original role of the Diet should be to discuss important problems that Japan is encountering, to make the law and to establish measures to overcome crisis, but it is not the case at all.

The article then directly criticises Abe for his attitude during the Lower House Budget Committee session. It says that Abe later defended himself saying that Kiyomi Tsujimoto had used abusive language against him, but Sankei continues:


But it is shameful to see the Prime Minister of a country heckle a lawmaker of the opposition because he got angry at her criticism.

Asahi starts its editorial with similar concerns, saying that the present situation in the Diet is far from what it should be.


It is sad to see incidents repeat themselves that are far from the the “bastion of free speech” [the Diet] should be: reach better decisions through constructive debates.

This passage is very difficult to translate… I get the idea, but it is hard to stay close to the Japanese, and I cannot find a good way to translate 言論の府. My dictionary suggests “forum for free speech” or “bastion of free speech”. I chose the one that sounded the most dramatic, but I feel that Asahi means more “discussions” and “debate” rather than “free speech”.

Asahi also mentions that Abe never really answered the questions of the opposition concerning the Cherry Blossom Party, thus implying that Kiyomi Tsujimoto’s questions were justified and certainly not “meaningless”.

Tokyo also criticise Abe’s attitude and express worries concerning the role of the Diet:


In short, the Diet is the place to answer the questions of the members, it is not the place for the government to make its campaign and refutations. Even if the other person belongs to the opposition, it is only right and proper that the Prime Minister and others should face the discussions with the utmost respect.

Abe said that he only reacted to what he considers to be “罵詈雑言” or abusive language. But Tokyo points out that Tsujimoto’s questions were not “abusive”, but rather a discourse that hit its target: 罵詈雑言ではなく的を射た発言だ, especially concerning the Moritomo and Kake scandals and, more recently, the problem of the Cherry Blossom Party.

Finally, Tokyo insists on the fact that such an attitude towards the opposition threatens the democracy. Abe’s heckling is described as a 議会制民主主義を危うくする暴言である (harsh language that threatens the representative democracy), and the newspaper later insists on the necessity to take a severe course of action against this 議会制民主主義を脅かす政府の言動 (speech and conduct from the government that threatens the representative democracy).

Tsukasa Akimoto released on bail

Tsukasa Akimoto, who was a key figure in the legalisation of casino in Japan, had been charged with bribery and arrested. He is accused of having received a total of ¥7.6 million from the China company Tsukasa Akimoto has been released on bail and gave a press conference in which he denied all the accusations against him.

Sankei: 秋元被告の会見 事件への認識が甘すぎる
Mainichi: 秋元衆院議員の保釈 国会でカジノ事件説明を
Tokyo: 秋元議員とIR 国会で真相を究明せよ

Useful vocabulary and persons involved

統合型リゾートとうごうがたリゾートIntegrated Resort
汚職おしょくcorruption, bribery
収賄罪しゅうわいざいthe offense of taking bribes
保釈ほしゃくbail (release on bail)
賄賂わいろa bribe
解禁かいきんremoval of a ban
喚問かんもんa summons
証人喚問しょうにんかんもんa summons to a witness
追起訴ついきそsubsequent indictment
証拠隠滅しょうこいんめつdestruction of evidence
秋元司: Tsukasa Akimoto
Member of the House of the Representatives
Former member of the LDP

Mainichi and Tokyo both want Akimoto to explain himself in the Diet. They both mention that, quite often, lawmakers who find themselves in the midst of scandals do not give proper explanations. The two newspapers express a similar thought:

Mainichi: 国民の代表であるならば、国会での説明に背を向けるべきではない。

If the Diet represents the people, then [lawmakers] should not refuse to give an explanation in the Diet.

Tokyo: 国民を代表する国会議員として、国会の場で説明する責任があるのではないか。

The members of the Diet are representing the people. As such, don’t they have the responsibility to explain themselves in the Diet?

Sankei criticises Akimoto’s explanation during the press conference. Akimoto received brand-name goods from, but to deny the fact that these were gifts, he says that he intended to repay the Chinese firm back with meals or other means. Sankei says:


But what was made clear during the press conference is Akimoto’s lax perception of the case. Justifications like “I intended to pay it back later” can even be said to be childish.

Sankei also points out that Akimoto was released on bail on the condition that he does not get in contact with the other members of the House of Representatives suspected of having received bribes from the Chinese firm. Given that he wants to resume his duties at the Diet, it will be difficult to guarantee that they don’t get in touch. The newspaper then adds:


Given that we cannot rule out the possibility that Akimoto destroys evidence that contradict the story arranged beforehand, doubts remain concerning [the legitimacy of] the decision to release him early on bail.

It is interesting to note that Sankei is very critical against Akimoto, the bribery scandal and the fact that he was released on jail so rapidly. But interestingly, Sankei does not question the process of deliberations that led to the legalisation of casinos.

On the contrary, both Mainichi and Tokyo point out that if the officials in charge of the IR bill were corrupted, it is only fair to ask if the discussions surrounding the legalisation of casinos were just. Mainichi says:


With this case, the pros and cons of the legalisation of casinos is again questioned in the Diet. Akimoto was one of the officials responsible for the developments of the legislation.

Tokyo lists the points of discord concerning the law on Integrated Resorts like the risk of dependance and the scepticism concerning its effects on the economy. It then adds:


This was before Akimoto allegedly received bribes, but were the deliberations surrounding the IR bill conducted lawully? The Diet must take the opportunity of this affair of corruption to make its own inspection.

I recognise とされる as one of the N1 grammar points I learned last year, but I am still not sure about this translation. I also don’t know how to understand 自ら…


Comparing what different newspapers say about the same topic is extremely interesting, as well as seeing what they choose to talk about in the editorials. While left-wing newspapers regularly talk about scandals like the Cherry Blossom Party, I noted that, this month, only the conservative newspapers (Yomiuri and Sankei) have written an editorial for 竹島の日 (a topic of dispute with South Korea). I was also surprised to see that Sankei, though a conservative paper, could be very critical of Abe and the government. In this respect, it differs from the Yomiuri which seems to only repeat what the government says. On the contrary, all three left-wing newspapers tend to be similar, though when it comes to criticising the government, Tokyo seems to be the most radical, followed by Mainichi and then Asahi. I guess that the more I read, the better I will understand each newspaper’s position.

Book review: 『ノルウェイの森』by Haruki Murakami


Title: 『ノルウェイの森』
Author: Haruki Murakami 村上春樹
Published by 講談社文庫

I don’t know much about Haruki Murakami’s books and this is the first of his novels that I read. Before that I had only read short stories in translation. I know that Norwegian Wood is the novel that made Murakami so popular, so I thought it would be a good idea to start with it.


To be honest, I don’t think that 『ノルウェイの森』was a book for me. Reading it allowed me to understand why Haruki Murakami is so popular, and I understand why so many people love this novel. But it is just not the kind of books that I enjoy reading.

I think that there are different ways to read this novel. It is a love story, a coming of age novel, a story on depression, the picture of Japanese youth in the late 1960s… and because it allows different interpretations, Norwegian Wood is a great book. My own vision of the story and the characters kept changing during a single read. To me, this is the kind of book that is worth re-reading at different periods of one’s life.

The problem is that I was not particularly drawn to the story, and I could not feel enough sympathy for the female characters who surround our protagonist Watanabe. Because neither the plot nor the characters succeeded in really triggering my interest, I ended up focusing on Watanabe, our narrator, and read Norwegian Wood as a kind of character study.

The story is told from the first person perspective. With a first-person narration, I would expect to have some introspection, to have a privileged relation with the character/narrator and have a direct access to his thoughts and emotions.

But our narrator Watanabe never tells us what he thinks or how he feels. Even when unsettling things happen, he does not confide in the reader. It is as if the narrator was talking about another character, whose thoughts he could not access and had to deduce from his behaviour. It bothered me a lot in the beginning, and then I realised that it was maybe intended, that the adult Watanabe, whom we meet briefly at the beginning of the novel, was indeed looking at his younger self as an outsider.

The more I studied Watanabe’s character, the more obvious it became to me that he has a conflicting personality. There is a “spoiler” section at the end of this book review where I develop on Watanabe’s personality. You can read it if you have already read the book and are interested in knowing my interpretation of the novel.

Japanese level

『ノルウェイの森』is very easy to read. I used to think that Keigo Higashino was the easiest author I had read in Japanese, but I must say that Haruki Murakami is easier. I talk a little more about this is my reading journal of February.

In any case, I would definitely say that 『ノルウェイの森』is a good reading material for any N2 learners or even aspiring N2 if you are motivated and like Murakami. As I said in my reading journal, I also think that you can tackle this novel sooner if you work with the translation.

Reading Challenge

One of my reading challenges is now completed!

My goal in reading 『ノルウェイの森』was to determine whether I like Haruki Murakami or not. I have only read some of his short stories before, and I have always felt a little anxious to not be able to grasp what makes his writings so special for many.

After reading 『ノルウェイの森』, I still don’t know whether I like Haruki Murakami or not. On the one hand, I didn’t really like the story nor the characters, but on the the other hand, I found the conflicting personality of Watanabe very interesting.

I heard people say that 『ノルウェイの森』was not the most representative work of Murakami, so maybe I will try another one of his works later…

Spoilers – Watanabe’s personality

To me, Watanabe has a conflicting personality, struggling between what he wants to be and what he really is.

The aspiring Jay Gatsby – Naoko

Naoko: どうしてだかはわからないけど、自分が深い森の中で迷っているような気になるの(…)一人ぼっちで寒くて、そして暗くって、誰も助けに来てくれなくて。

Watanabe aspires to be a new Jay Gatsby and pictures himself consumed by his love for Naoko (Daisy), while unconsciously taking pleasure in their impossibility to be together because it feeds his fiction. I think that this is the reason why he never tells Midori about Naoko and lets her believe that he is in love with a rich married woman. This makes him closer to Jay Gatsby and suits his fantasy better than the real depressive Naoko in her mental institution.

Watanabe is so wrapped up in his narcissistic identification with Gatsby that he is incapable to see the others for who they are. Either they serve the image he wants to have of himself (Naoko), or they don’t (Midori). In any case, he never tries to understand the other characters’ pain or distress, he just does not seem to care about others’ feelings.

As a result, he fails to understand that Naoko is a real character already deep into depression. He is strangely detached every time she breaks down in tears, and when Reiko sends him alarming news of Naoko’s state, he hardly reacts. Even though Naoko tells him how exclusive her relation with Kizuki was, he just does not understand (or does not care about) Naoko’s distress now that Kizuki is dead. Maybe he sees Kizuki as a Tom Buchanan?

As a result of his self-centered fiction and indifference for others, he tells Naoko about Midori in his letters. At that point, Naoko has already confided in him and committed herself to him. Isolated and far from solid social bounds, struggling to recover from Kizuki’s loss, knowing that Watanabe is hanging out with another girl must have been unsettling.

When Watanabe leaves his dormitory and moves in an apartment, his identification with Gatsby must have been strong and, similarly to Gatsby trying to attract Daisy in his newly purchased mansion, he repeatedly asks Naoko to come and live with him in his apartment, thus showing that he does not understand her at all. Once again, he does not see Naoko for herself, but as the female protagonist of his self-centered story.

After Naoko’s death, Watanabe’s fiction finally explodes when Reiko tells him about Naoko’s last days. Watanabe must have been shocked to learn that Naoko was planning to move in with Reiko, not him, and that she has burned his letters. For the first time, he is forced to see the real Naoko and realise that it does not fit the image he had built of her. If he had known this earlier, he would maybe have spared himself his one-month solitary travel.

The lonely Watanabe – Midori

Midori: でも私、淋しいのよ。ものすごく淋しいの。(…)これまでの二十年間の人生で、私ただの一度もわがままきいてもらったことないのよ。

Under his identification with Gatsby and his aspiring self, there is the real Watanabe, and these two personalities (the real one and the fictional one) are in conflict.

The real Watanabe is a dull, passive character, who has nothing interesting to say apart from making fun of his roommate, never takes any initiative and just follows the others. But most of all, he cannot bear the solitude and has to use Midori to fill the emptiness of his spare time.

His attitude towards Midori follows the fluctuations of his two personalities: the aspiring Gatsby and the real Watanabe. First he longs for the inaccessible Naoko, but soon, waiting becomes too long and boring for him, and he hangs out with Midori. When he moves in his apartment, he becomes Jay Gatsby again, asks Naoko to come live with him and completely shuts Midori out of his life. When it becomes clear that Naoko is not responding to his letters, he tries to make up with Midori because he cannot bear to spend the beautiful days of Spring alone. When Naoko dies, he abandons Midori once again to wallow in his pain, doing what heroes of literature do.

It looks like Naoko has seen through Watanabe and given up on him in the end, but Midori does not seem able to do so. She might be outgoing and lively, but she desperately needs someone to take care of her. So much, that she clings to Watanabe, even though he only half commits himself to her.

While Watanabe constantly follows Midori in all her fantasies, thus encouraging her to want more from him, he appears surprised or reproachful when she asks for it and always feigns to not understand when she expresses her love for him.

I find the night he spends at her home to be representative of their relationship: reluctantly agreed to, but only half given. Midori states very clearly what she wants: for just once in her life, she wants to be spoiled by someone. She wants to fall asleep with a Watanabe whispering sweet things to her, wake up with him, have breakfast with him and go to school together. Watanabe reluctantly accepts, fulfills half of Midori’s request and leaves at dawn, before she wakes up. Of course, it does not cross his mind that Midori might have felt miserable to wake up alone.

The passive Watanabe – Nagasawa

Nagasawa: ワタナベも俺と同じように本質的には自分のことにしか興味が持てない人間なんだよ。(…) ただこの男の場合自分でそれがまだきちんと認識されていないものだから、迷ったり傷ついたりするんだ。

It is hard to understand what the ambitious Nagasawa finds in the indolent Watanabe, but because they share the same love for literature, it seems that Nagasawa is the character who understands Watanabe the best.

Watanabe’s real personality is desperately far away from his aspiring literary counterpart. He pictures himself looking at the “green light” like Jay Gatsby, but he does not have dreams or goals of his own, he only borrows others’. Contrary to Gatsby, he has achieved nothing, he has not succeeded in changing his condition. He is not the “great” Watanabe. He is just the dull and passive boy following the others.

One of Watanabe’s characteristics is his incapacity to refuse anything. No matter what is asked of him, he always says いいよ or いいですよ. He is okay to listen to Reiko’s story of her mental breakdown even though he has just met her. He is okay to watch porno films with Midori as well as nursing her dying father, whom he never met before, and spend the whole day at the hospital.

One day, when Watanabe spends the evening with his friend Nagasawa and Nagasawa’s girlfriend Hatsumi, Watanabe says that he does not particularly enjoy sleeping with girls in love hotels. When Hatsumi asks him why he does it anyway, Nagasawa answers for his friend 俺が誘うからだよ, thus stating what I think is the most profound truth about Watanabe.

But far from acknowledging the truth of this statement, Watanabe eventually betrays his friend by encouraging Hatsumi to leave him. He criticises Nagasawa for constantly cheating on Hatsumi and thinks that she deserves better. He does not seem to realise that he is doing the same thing to Naoko and that his condemning his friend is only laughable.

Sincere love – Reiko

Reiko: 私自身の中にあったいちばん大事なものはもうとっくの昔に死んでしまっていて、私はただその記憶に従って行動しているにすぎないのよ。

Watanabe’s love for Naoko and Midori were just different ways to fulfill his egoistic needs: his love for Naoko served his identification with Jay Gatsby while his love for Midori relieved him from his loneliness.

In the end, his relation with Reiko may be the less narcissistic, and the more sincere one, even though he ignores her for a long time because she does not fit in any pattern.

When he visits Naoko in the institution, he becomes the confident of Reiko’s story. When he leaves, Reiko asks if she could receive letters from him from time to time. His answer? いいですよ。書きます、喜んで. But we know that he didn’t write to her after that: in his letters to Naoko, he asks her to greet Reiko for him, implying that he never writes to her directly.

Reiko said several times how much Naoko and herself enjoy Watanabe’s letters, so I think she meant it when she asked for his letters. Later, she asks explicitly and several times if he can write her letters. He complies eventually, but only at a time when Naoko does not write back anymore and Reiko becomes his only interlocutor anyway.

When Naoko dies, he never bothers to ask Reiko how she is, even though she was much closer to Naoko that he ever was and must have a hard time coping with her death.

But during their last meeting, Watanabe seems to finally get closer to Reiko. At the end, when Reiko suggests that they sleep together, I half expected him to say いいですよ, but he surprised me by answering 僕も同じこと考えてたんです, which tends to convince me that Reiko is the only female character he actually pays attention to.

A coming of age novel? – Storm Trooper

Watanabe: 僕は僕なりに誠実に生きてきたつもりだし、誰に対しても嘘はつきませんでした。誰かを傷つけたりしないようにずっと注意してきました。

Watanabe writes this to Reiko towards the end of the novel.

One of the first things we learn about Watanabe is how he makes fun of his roommate 突撃隊, or Storm Trooper, in the English translation by Jay Rubin. While it is obvious that Storm Trooper has problems of his own (it’s enough to look at his obsessive behaviour), Watanabe makes jokes about him, and he soon becomes the laughing stock of the whole dormitory. This attitude is all the more disgusting because Storm Trooper trusts Watanabe.

Watanabe says that he does not feel good about mocking his roommate “正直言って彼を笑い話のたねにするのはあまり気持の良いものではなかった。”, but he still continues to make fun of him, never really wondering how Storm Trooper felt about it. When he disappears, Watanabe does not express concern that it may be linked to the atmosphere in the dormitory. He only misses him because, without Storm Trooper, he does not have anything funny to tell the girls anymore.

And at the end of the novel, we see Watanabe writing to Reiko that he has always been careful not to hurt anyone…

Norwegian Wood is often classified as a “Bildungsroman”, but the more I think of it, the more I find that it is the opposite. Watanabe didn’t grow, he didn’t change, and he is still lying to himself at the end.

When he turns 20 and thinks of himself as an adult, he asks for Reiko’s advice because he loves two girls at the same time and does not know what to do about it.

By wanting too much to be the hero of another novel, Watanabe has missed the opportunity to grow in his own story. He failed in passing from youth to adulthood, to become mature and to achieve his “coming of age”. He does not evolve during this 600 pages novel, just following the others, lacking a path of his own to follow. He is like an empty page that others can fill with their own stories. When they all are gone, he finds himself completely lost: 僕は今どこにいるのだ?The end echoes the very beginning of the novel when our 37-year-old Watanabe says in English “I only felt lonely, you know”.

This is my interpretation of Norwegian Wood‘s ambiguous narrator, and I am sure that other readers have other interpretations or have read the book completely differently. As I said before, I think that Murakami’s novel can be read in different ways, and maybe I will see things differently if I were to re-read it!

Reading Journal: February 2020

I am starting a new series on my blog! I will post in the “Reading Journal” category on the 15th of each month.

My reading challenge for 2020 is to read more widely and try several genres and difficulty levels, so I thought it would be a good idea to keep a monthly update of my readings on my blog.

The “Reading Journal” posts will not be about the books themselves (I’ll talk about that in the book reviews) but about my experience of reading theses books in Japanese.

The cover of the four books I am currently reading
Currently reading: 『ノルウェイの森』by Haruki Murakami, 『ボッコちゃん』by Shinichi Hoshi, 『マチネの終わりに』by Keiichiro Hirano and 『帰郷』by Jiro Asada.

I am always reading several books at the same time! These are all the books I am currently reading, from the easiest to the most difficult:

『ノルウェイの森』by Haruki Murakami (村上春樹)

Format: Long novel of around 600 pages
Genre: Bildungsroman
Level: Very easy to read

I don’t know why I waited so long to read Haruki Murakami in Japanese… I thought his books would be very literary and difficult to read, but『ノルウェイの森』 is surprisingly easy to read in Japanese. I rarely stumble across unknown words, and the dialogues are extremely easy to follow.

『ノルウェイの森』 is a book that I can easily use to read aloud. This is something that I like to do, not only for language learning purposes, but simply because I enjoy it. With Japanese, this is a frustrating enterprise because of all the kanji words whose meaning I know or guess but whose reading I am not sure of. Well, 『ノルウェイの森』is the perfect book to read aloud to me because there are so few unknown words.

It is certainly the longest novel I have read in Japanese so far. To be honest, I hadn’t realised how long it was when I bought it because it was printed in two thin separate books. I am nearing the end though, and I will be able to post my review on the 20th.

I know that a lot of Japanese learners are readers of Haruki Murakami and wish to read his books in Japanese too. I encourage you to give it a try, especially if you have already read his books in translation or if you have the translation to read in parallel.

To give you an idea of the Japanese level of the book, this is the opening of the second chapter:


And the opening of the third chapter:


If you find these extracts easy to read, then I think you won’t have much difficulties reading Norwegian Wood in Japanese. If you can understand these passages but had to look up one or two words or check a grammatical pattern, then I encourage you to give the novel a try. Maybe, get the translation to help you when you come across a difficult passage.

Another thing that you could do to use Norwegian Wood as a reading practice is to read the narrative passages in translation and read the dialogues in Japanese. As I said, I find the dialogues in Norwegian Wood extremely easy to read. The narrative parts are not difficult either, but it can be daunting to tackle long blocks of texts if you are not used to reading in Japanese.

『ボッコちゃん』by Shinichi Hoshi (星新一)

Format: short short stories: the book is less than 350 pages and each story is about 3 to 8 pages long.
Genre: Speculative fiction, science fiction
Level: the Japanese is not difficult per se, but I find speculative fiction to be rather difficult to read for language learners because it is unpredictable.

2020 is the year when I try new genres and broaden the range of books that I read in Japanese. With this in mind, I bought something that I would not have chosen otherwise: science fiction.

When it comes to novels, I prefer realistic settings and characters rather than imaginative ones. I never read fantasy or science fiction, even though I like these genres in other media like films or series. So I was a little afraid to read 『ボッコちゃん』because I have never read short short stories before, and I am not used to reading SF in English, let alone in Japanese.

The short stories are rather easy to read in Japanese, the author never uses specialised or scientific words, and the stories are often based on dialogues rather than descriptions. The short format is also ideal for Japanese learners. You can choose to read just one story per day like I do, or you could try to study or even translate one story as a reading exercise.

On the other hand, I always find that it asks me a lot of effort to get into the story and understand what we are talking about. This is certainly because I am not used to reading speculative fiction. Also, as the author only has a few pages to tell his story, only a couple of sentences will be used to establish the setting, so if you miss a piece of information you will be quickly lost.

For example, in the story ねらわれた星, we learn from the first sentence that aliens are approaching a new planet:「こんどは、あの星の連中をやっつけて楽しもうぜ」金属質のウロコで全身をおおわれた生物は、彼らの宇宙船のなかで、仲間にこういった。

In 親善キッス, on the contrary, humans are travelling in space and reaching their destination:「やれやれ、やっと着いた。まったく長い旅だったな」地球からの親善使節団の一行の乗りくんだ宇宙船は、広大な空間の旅を終えて、銀色にきらめきながら、チル惑星の首都ちかくの空港に降りたった。

I often find that, if my concentration weakens, I have trouble following the stories, even though I do not consider them to be difficult. For now, I read just one story per day but try to be fully focused when reading.

『マチネの終わりに』by Keiichiro Hirano (平野啓一郎)

Long novel of 464 pages
Genre: contemporary romance (?) The book is classified as a “恋愛小説”, but I’m not sure whether it will fill the requirements to really be a romance.
Level: still okay but with challenging parts

In my challenge to read more genres, I have decided to give this ロングセラー恋愛小説 a try. This book seems to be an absolute best-seller, it has overall good reviews and it has been adapted into film in 2019.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure whether I would enjoy reading this book because the story did not appeal to me. But, you never know, and my goal was to broaden my reading adventures so… I decided to buy the audiobook to read and listen at the same time. I thought that the audiobook would 1) make a good listening practice, 2) make reading this book easier and encourage me to finish it even if I wasn’t too much into it.

It works. Without the audiobook, I would have given up on the book long ago. There are a lot of things that I don’t like in this novel (more about that in my book review!), but what really puts me off are the characters (especially the female protagonist Yoko) who are so well educated, have such high standards and refined conversations (arthouse cinema, classical music, literature and poetry seem to be the only things they care to talk about). They are sooooo snobbish!

Anyway, about the language level… The story is easy to follow, but the Japanese level can be a little high sometimes. What makes things difficult is that I have to read following the pace of the audiobook. Granted, the pace is very slow, but for difficult passages, I often need to re-read sentences twice or look up words, so I basically have to pause the audiobook.

I have re-read the beginning of the book, in the lookout for such a passage to give you a concrete example. It came very early, at page 13. Satoshi Makino, our male protagonist, is giving a concert of classical guitar:


This is the kind of description that I can understand if I am allowed to read it carefully, to read some sentences twice, and take time to guess the meaning of some words like 楽章 or look up words like 陰翳 (why not write 陰影??). But if I am allowed only one reading at the audiobook pace, I only get the general meaning (Satoshi Makino’s performance is outstanding) and miss the subtleties.

The problem is that I don’t like the book enough to want to spend time understanding every difficult passage. So I have decided to take a different approach. My goal is to use this book to improve my reading speed. The idea is not to understand perfectly what I read, but to understand as much as I can with a single read, at the pace of the audiobook. It is an interesting exercise that forces me to be very concentrated, to grab and process the information quicker than usual, and to learn to let go and move on if I didn’t understand something. To make things more challenging (and to be done with the book sooner) I sometimes use a 1.1 or 1.2 speed.

『帰郷』by Jiro Asada (浅田次郎)

Format: 6 short stories of around 40 pages each
Genre: War stories
Level: very difficult

『帰郷』is clearly above my level! I have read the first short story, which was difficult but still okay for me. But the second one… I have tried to read it without using the dictionary, but this is simply impossible. I have started it twice but had to give up after a few pages.

I could give up on the book altogether and keep it for when my reading has improved. But on the other hand, my reading will not improve much if I don’t study difficult texts from time to time. I keep thinking of how much I would like to be able to read accounts of WWII in Japanese, and that I am not there yet. But I need to stop thinking like that. “Stop wishing and make it happen” will be my motto from now on!

There are several things that are difficult in this second short story 鉄の沈黙.

First of all, we start in mid-action and we are not given any context by the narrator. We have to deduce the context from what the characters say. After a few pages, it is possible to know where the characters are, which year the story takes place and at what stage of the war we are.

The story opens with a 大発 (Daihatsu-class landing craft) arriving at the 瓢箪岬 (a gourd-shaped headland?), from ツルブ (Cape Gloucester) after crossing the ダンピール海峡 (Dampier Straits).

Nothing indicates it, but after some googling, I falsely assumed that the story takes place during the Battle of Cape Gloucester (26 December 1943 – 16 January 1944). As a result, I could not begin to understand why our protagonists would transport ammunitions from Cape Gloucester to this gourd-shaped headland. They also say that they had to deliver them to the front line, so it just did not make sense to me.

It became clear afterwards that the story takes place during the Salamaua–Lae campaign (22 April – 16 September 1943). Salamaua is situated at the base of a headland that does have the shape of a gourd, so I assumed that this is where they landed. Once I understood that, everything became easier, but my initial mistake greatly slowed my reading of the first pages.

And of course, there are a lot of military related vocabulary: 高射砲、弾薬、歩哨、砲兵、師団、魚雷艇、潜水艦、駆逐艦…

I am trying to look up as many words as possible, or check online when I don’t find a word in my dictionary. For example, what they call the 大発 is an abbreviation for 大発動艇, the Daihatsu-class landing craft. Knowing how the Daihatsu looks like made some sentences easier to understand: 「大発は揚陸用の平らな船首を砂浜に向けた。」or 「揚陸をおえた大発は船首の歩板を上げていた。」

Now that I know the context, things are becoming easier and I have now read around 10 pages of the short story. I am looking up words and taking notes, so my progress is very slow.


I will finish 『ノルウェイの森』, if not tomorrow, then the day after tomorrow and post my review on the 20th. I hope that I can finish 「鉄の沈黙」(and maybe read another one?) in the upcoming month. As I am only reading one short short story per day, 『ボッコちゃん』will certainly accompany me during the rest of February and the first half of March, so I will certainly have just finished it when I write my next reading journal post on March 15th. As for 『マチネの終わりに』… unless something extraordinary happens in the story, I don’t see myself reading more than a few pages of it at a time…

A picture of my cat lying on my notebook with my book, pen and dictionary around him.

Book Review: 『ハングルへの旅』by Noriko Ibaragi

About the book

Title: 『ハングルへの旅』(はんぐるへのたび)
Author: Noriko Ibaragi 茨木のり子
Published by 朝日文庫

Japanese poet Noriko Ibaragi (1926-2006) learned Korean in 1976, when she was 50 years old. Ten years later, in 1986, she recorded her experience of learning this new language in『ハングルへの旅』.


『ハングルへの旅』p. 85

『ハングルへの旅』is a beautiful story about learning a new language and a new culture. I heartily recommend it to everyone interested in language learning, or everyone learning both Japanese and Korean. As a language learner, I kept smiling at Noriko Ibaragi’s anecdotes, most of them I had experienced myself. And for someone who is interested in the relationships and history between Japan and Korea, seeing Korea through the eyes of Noriko Ibaragi back in the 1970s/80s was fascinating.

I kept finding similarities between Noriko Ibaragi’s experience with language learning and mine. Right from the beginning, I felt an immediate bond with the author. She opens her book talking about the answer she would give when people asked her why she was learning Korean. She says that this question annoyed her because there were all kinds of reasons that would be too long and complicated to explain. In the end, she ended up saying 「隣の国のことばですもの」.

『ハングルへの旅』is full of anecdotes that any language learner can relate to. For example, when visiting a tourist attraction in Korea with a friend, Noriko Ibaragi says that they chose to follow the guided tour in Korean rather than Japanese, even though they could understand only one third of it. Who hasn’t done the same? Reading this book made me realise that, even though learning a language has become much easier today than it was in 1976, the experiences we make as learners have remained the same.

『ハングルへの旅』also allowed me to learn a lot of interesting facts about learning Korean in Japan at the time. I learned for example, that Japanese and ethnic Koreans in Japan would often refer to the Korean language as 朝鮮語, but it sounded pejorative to Koreans, and South Koreans associate 朝鮮 with the North. When NHK launched a Korean class, instead of choosing between 朝鮮語 and 韓国語, they called it ハングル講座.

It was also captivating to read about the ethnic Koreans of second of third generations (在日), who once grown up, would start learning their 母国語 again. I like how Noriko Ibaragi does not talk about her experience only, but includes her classmates, friends and people she met along the way.

Noriko Ibaragi does not shy away from mentioning the two countries’ common past, even noting her own blunder when she complimented a Korean poet who was around her age on her excellent Japanese. She realises too late that this Korean poet belonged to a generation who was forced to learn and use Japanese at school during the Japanese rule of Korea . 「ハッとしたが遅く、自分の迂闊さに恥じ入った。」

She compares some features of Korean with Japanese and talks about her travels to Korea, things that surprised her and the conversations she had with strangers met during her travels. Whenever she talks about the differences between Japanese and Korean culture, language or customs, she always keeps an open heart and finds beauty and appeal in Korean particularities that are different from her country.

You don’t need to know or speak Korean to read this book (she gives a translation and reading for everything written in Korean), but you will find this book even more interesting if you do. There are chapters where Noriko Ibaragi talks about Korean words she finds interesting, Korean pronunciation, what she finds difficult in learning Korean, and so on. I think that these chapters could feel abstract if you are not particularly interested in the Korean language. That being said, 『ハングルへの旅』will remain a fantastic read even if you skip these parts.

Japanese level

I was bracing myself for a difficult book to read in Japanese, but 『ハングルへの旅』was not that challenging. There were some passages that I found difficult, but overall, it was a smooth read. I would say that I found this book more difficult to read than most mystery novels that I have read so far, but it was very engrossing, and constantly coming across things that I could relate to made the reading easier.

This is an extract to give you an idea of the Japanese level and show how the author adds Korean words into her text (what I wrote in brackets was furigana):

かささぎという鳥は「까치 [ッカーチー]」だ。
いつか百貨店 [べっくワジョム] で、小さな木版画を買おうとしてあれこれ見ていたとき、からすとも、かささぎともみえる鳥二羽を指さして、
「까치죠? [ッカーチージョウ](かささぎでしょう?)」
「그래요 [クレヨ](そうです)」
『ハングルへの旅』p. 199

I am sure that this is an experience any language learner can relate to! But if you are also learning Korean, maybe you can sympathise even more with her difficulty to get the 濃音 right…


Amidst all the tensions between the two countries, the 反日 movements in Korea and the 嫌韓 books or articles published in Japan, reading 『ハングルへの旅』was heartwarming. I have read one of those 嫌韓 books last year, out of curiosity, and I was shocked by the way the author constantly mocked or diminished Korea. 『ハングルへの旅』was written in 1986, but it is great book to read today.

Further readings: Noriko Ibaragi talks about Takumi Asagawa (浅川巧), a Japanese who worked in Korea during Japanese rule, and fell in love with Korean culture. He is buried near Seoul. Noriko Ibaragi mentioned that she read the book 『朝鮮の土となった日本人―浅川巧の生涯』(1982) written by Historian Soji Takasaki (高崎宗司). I am interested in the life of Takumi Asagawa, and I think that I might read the shorter『白磁の人』(1994) by Takayuki Emiya (江宮隆之).

2020 Reading challenge!

First step in completing my reading challenge for 2020!

Reading young adult nonfiction books

It is hard to think that January is already over when I am still thinking about what I will do in 2020… I spent most of January reading, and this month’s post will be exclusively about young adult nonfiction!

The collection Chikuma Primer Shinsho (ちくまプリマー新書) from the publisher Chikuma Shobo (筑摩書房) is a collection of nonfiction books written for young readers. The books cover a wide range of topics, are short and easy to understand.

The collection was recommended to me on Twitter when I talked about my reading goals for 2020. These books are easier to read than adult nonfiction, and you can choose a topic that interests you to build target vocabulary, so they are perfect for Japanese learners.

I chose two books from this collection:

What I haven’t figured out is whether the books are classified by level. Of the two books I have read, one was extremely easy to read and the other one was rather difficult. I could not find any level indication on the books themselves. It is obvious that some books target a specific audience when the terms “for middle school students” or “for high school students” appear in the title, but apart from this, it is hard to tell the level. If you are interested in this collection, I recommend to choose your topics carefully, read the summary and look at the table of contents to try to evaluate the level of the book.

These are my thoughts about the two books I have read (I will not write separated book reviews for them):

『アイドルになりたい』by Akio Nakamori 中森明夫

I know close to nothing about the world of Japanese idols, but I am, if not interested in, at least curious about this aspect of Japanese culture. This title really caught my eye, and I thought that it would be very interesting to read what is said to young Japanese girls who want to become idols.

More than giving concrete advice or steps to pass an audition, the author talks about the kind of mindset that is required to become an idol. Some passages were very interesting and I learned a lot about Japanese idols through them. For example, the author explains that the most important thing to become an idol is not to be pretty, to dance well or to sing well, but to have the capacity to be loved by fans.

The author also gives a realistic overview of what it means to become an idol. For example, he insists on the fact that being an idol is a job, that idols are employees inside the entertainment industry, linked to a company by a working contract:

夢をつかむということは、つまり、夢を仕事にするということなんだ。p. 37

きみが「アイドルになる」ということは、「芸能界の一員として働く」ということなんだ。p. 38

He also says that idols have to work with people they don’t necessarily like, colleagues or fans. He also insists on the importance and the nature of the relationship between idols and fans:

芸能人ってのは、すべての人たちに対して身をさらしている客商売なんだ。嫌いな人は相手にしないってわけにはいかない。p. 50

アイドルのファンには、孤独な男性がたくさんいる。恋人がいない。友達がいない。今まで恋愛経験がまったくない。そりゃ、さみしいよね。そうして、こう考える。この世にたった一人でいい。自分のために、自分の目の前で、本物の笑顔を見せてくれる女の子がいたら…。その女の子のためなら、何だってできる。それがアイドルとファンの関係なんだ。きみは本物の笑顔を見せなければならない。アイドルになるために。それが、きみの…仕事なんだ。p. 52

ファンの多くは、アイドルを疑似恋愛の対象として見る。だからCDをたくさん買ったり、サイン会や握手会へかけつけたりして、お金を払う。そういうビジネスだ。p. 143

The author shows what is really required of idols instead of focusing on the shiny parts. He encourages his readers in their dream, but he does not try to make it look attractive. On the contrary, he wants to be sure that those who choose this path know exactly what lies before them. But nonetheless, after showing all the negatives aspect of the job, he fervently encourages his readers to become idols, and sends a passionate and ardent message to promote and spread this aspect of Japanese contemporary culture…

All in all, the book has interesting parts, and I have learned a lot about Japanese idols thanks to it. But as the author both states plainly the downside of the job and encourages his young readers to become idols, I couldn’t help but finding the book somewhat disturbing.

『アイドルになりたい』 was extremely easy to read. The author is obviously targeting a very young audience, he talks directly to his readers, and there is a line break after (almost) every sentence! This kind of writing is perfect for intermediate learners who want to start reading in Japanese. I am not particularly telling you to read this one book (unless the topic interests you), but the collection is certainly worth checking out if you are looking for easy reads.

『ある若き死刑囚の生涯』by Otohiko Kaga 加賀乙彦

This book is about Yoshiki Sumitama (純多摩良樹). Yoshiki Sumitama is responsible for the train explosion that killed one person and wounded 14 on the Yokosuka line in 1968 (横須賀線電車爆破事件). Arrested and trialled, Yoshiki Sumitama was sentenced to death in 1971 and executed in 1975. In prison, he wrote poems that have been published in an anthology in 1995.

『ある若き死刑囚の生涯』 is an “autobiography” that focuses on Yoshiki Sumitama’s life in prison, but it is written by Otohiko Kaga, not by Yoshiki Sumitama. Otohiko Kaga is an author who participated in the publication of Sumitama’s poems, visited him in prison and exchanged letters with him. He says that he wrote this book using the letters, the poems and several notes, but it is not clear how much of the text comes from Yoshiki Sumitama himself and how much was created by Otohiko Kaga. The book is written like an autobiography, using the first person pronoun, and even though it is written using genuine documents by Sumitama, I felt like I was reading a work of fiction or a fake autobiography, and that annoyed me.

I was a little disappointed in this book. I was interested in the daily life of death row inmates in Japan. I thought that I would learn concrete facts in this book, but it rarely describes the surroundings of Sumitama. The book is massively centered on Sumitama’s inner life, his poems, and his conversion to Christianity.

The book almost never talks about details of Sumitama’s daily life in prison, about the guards or other inmates. For example, he mentions at some point that another inmate has been executed. While this is surely an upsetting event for death row inmates, it is mentioned only briefly and Sumitama seems very detached. As a result, reading this book didn’t feel like reading an autobiography written on death row.

If you are interested in Sumitama himself and his poetry, this book is great. But for someone who wanted to know more about life in Japanese prisons in the 1970s, this was not the book to read.

Surprisingly, 『ある若き死刑囚の生涯』was rather difficult to read in Japanese, especially if we compare it to 『アイドルになりたい』. This is why I am surprised to see that the books are not classified by level because those two are extremely different.


If you are looking for easy books in Japanese, I recommend that you browse the collection. I will certainly read other titles in the future, so if I find an interesting one that is easy to read, I will let you know!