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Review: monthly magazine ニュースがわかる

In this post, I want to talk about an online magazine that can be great for language learners who want to practise reading in Japanese or who want to get into reading the news in Japanese.

『ニュースがわかる』 is a monthly magazine for secondary and high school readers published by Mainichi. The entire magazine has complete furigana and many illustrations/pictures in colours. Articles are mainly about social, political issues but you will find a bit of everything, including culture, environment, science…

The subscription for the digital version costs 255 yen per month (490 for the paper version), and each new issue comes out around the 15th of the previous month. Once you have subscribed, you can read the digital version of the magazine either on Mainichi website or by using the app (available on Google Play and the App Store).

You can see the table of contents for each issue here, and you will find information about the digital version here.

I subscribed in July, so this is my review after reading 3 issues of the magazine.

About the magazine

The magazine has 45 pages in colour with a lot of illustrations (pictures, drawings, graphs, maps, etc.). You will find complete furigana throughout the magazine.

Most articles are related to topical issues (mostly concerning Japan, but there are international news too) or general knowledge, but they are not strictly speaking news articles. For example, Tokyo gubernatorial elections took place on July 5th. The magazine of August contains an article that explains the role of the governor in the fight against the coronavirus. This kind of topic allows the reader to feel close to current affairs while building their general knowledge and social awareness.

Most articles are about social issues but there are also pages on politics, foreign policies, environment, culture, science… I personally found each article I read to be very interesting, and I am always learning things while practising my reading.

Apart from articles, there are also manga, quiz, and a section that goes through the main news of the previous month.

An example of the pages layout

I find that the difficulty level of articles varies a little (for example, the news section is more difficult than the main articles), but overall, I would say that it is a good reading material for N2 levels and a good study material for N3. With N1, you will certainly find the magazine overall relatively easy to read, but specialised topics can bring you new vocabulary:

  • N3: The magazine will be challenging, but it makes for a good study material and a good source of new vocabulary, especially if you are interested in social issues.
  • N2: I think that the language level of the magazine is perfect for N2 students, it can also helps you start reading news articles in Japanese.
  • N1: Makes for a good reading practice and a good way to stay in touch with topical issues in Japan.

I really wished that I had found this magazine sooner because I have always been looking for reading resources that would be both easy enough to fit my language level and interesting enough to keep me reading. Materials for adults might be too difficult, but materials for children are often uninteresting to me. This magazine is right in the good spot: easier to read than news to adults, but still tackles topics that are of interest for an adult readership.

I find that this magazine is great if you want to:

  • read news articles in Japanese
  • build your vocabulary on specialised topics
  • practice reading on a regular basis.

I will cover each of these points in a dedicated section.

Read news articles

If you want to read news articles but find newspapers too difficult to read, this magazine is an excellent way to get started. The articles are short and “easy” to read. The vocabulary is still challenging (I would say that it is around N2), but it is much easier to read than newspaper articles. News articles tend to have long sentences whose structure is not always easy to follow. They will also use difficult turns of phrase and expressions. The articles in 『ニュースがわかる』 are easy to read in the sense that sentences are simply structured.

My personal experience is that, with my N1 level, I still find news articles very difficult to read in Japanese. The vocabulary is of course challenging, but more than that, the long sentences and grammatical patterns are difficult to decipher. It feels like newspapers use a language of their own (this might be true in all languages). Furthermore, the reader is supposed to have a certain knowledge of what is going on, so articles sometimes only hint at or refer to events without explaining them, which makes it very difficult to jump into a new topic.

On the contrary, I find the articles of 『ニュースがわかる』very easy to read. I rarely encounter an unknown word in articles about social and political issues, but specialised topics like space mission or competition of shogi are a good way for me to learn new words. What I also really appreciate is how simple the sentences are in their structures and grammatical patterns. Another good point is that the authors explain everything, they do not expect their young readers to have a previous knowledge of the topics they are talking about. Some “keywords” explain important notions, and the many illustrations like maps or graphs also make it easier to understand the content of the article.

This is an example of how key words are explained

If you are interested in reading Japanese news, starting with this magazine can make for a smoother start rather than jumping directly into news articles.

Build your vocabulary

『ニュースがわかる』 can also be a good source to learn vocabulary out of the native resources you use for immersion and practice.

I think that learning words you encountered in native resources is the most efficient way to learn vocabulary as you can associate each word with a context and remember them more easily. The problem I have always encountered with this method is that there are so many unknown words in native resources that I always found it difficult to know which ones to learn, which ones to look up and which ones to add to anki. The amount of words to work on has often been discouraging and looking them up was tiring.

As a result, I mainly built my vocabulary with lists of words provided by my JLPT textbooks. It was boring, but easy to use.

『ニュースがわかる』 is great because it is a native resource and it is fun to read. At the same time, it aims at a certain level of reading skills and will not use unnecessarily complicated words or grammar. The words that are used are all words that you have to know if you want to read things on this particular topic. As a result, you know that the words present in the articles are all worth learning. And of course, the furigana make it easier to look them up.

What I also find great is that you can learn vocabulary by topic. If you are interested in reading about anti coronavirus measures in Japanese, work on the vocabulary of these articles. It is great if you like to classify your vocabulary by topic. More generally, it allows you to focus on what interests you and to not feel overwhelmed.

『ニュースがわかる』, August 2020, p10

For example, in this paragraph, you will find useful vocabulary to read articles about the coronavirus. Words like 感染者数, 死亡者数 or 対策 are definitely words you need to know in this context. 権限 is also a word that you encounter often when reading the state or local administration’s power in setting anti-infection measures.

The most difficult word in this paragraph is the one in red. What makes it difficult is that it is the name of a law. A newspaper article would just mention the law without explaining what it is. In the magazine, the word is in red to note that it is a “key word” that is explained on the same page.

To give you another example, let’s look at the quiz section (there are questions for secondary school and for high school levels):

Answering is certainly not challenging for an adult, but answering in Japanese can be!

Practise reading

If you don’t know what to read in Japanese, having subscribed to an online magazine gives you a reading resource each month.

One downside of the subscription is that you only have access to the current issue and the previous one. You are not able to stock previous issues to read later, so you have to read the magazine during the current month or you will fall behind and might even miss a complete issue if you haven’t read it and a new one has come up since.

On the other hand, this system forces you to read regularly. My problem with being able to save things for later is that I end up never reading them. Maybe it is just me, but I feel reassured when I know that I have saved a lot of reading materials for ulterior use, but somehow, saving things for later becomes more important than actually using them…

With this magazine, I have two months to read an issue, and if I don’t, it is gone and I lose all access to it. I hate this system, but I must also admit that this forces me to read the magazine regularly.

Plus and downsides…

The plus

  • The prize. I personally find that 255 yen per month is a very reasonable prize for what you get.
  • Great layout and many illustrations make it easier to read.
  • Complete furigana makes it easier to look up words.
  • The language level makes it perfect for language learners who want to strengthen their vocabulary in order to read article news.
  • The viewer provided to read the digital version is okay. (see downsides too)
  • You can access the viewer on your computer, tablet or phone.

Downsides

  • As far as I know, there is no way to download and keep the magazine. You only have access to the current month and the previous month. If you don’t read it an issue on time, you will not be able to read it later, even though you paid for it.
  • I don’t think that you can read the digital copy of the magazine anywhere else than the Mainichi viewer.
  • While being okay, the viewer is not perfect either. The digital version of the magazine is not a version specially designed to be read digitally, it is exactly the same layout as the paper version and all you can do is zoom in the page to read the paragraphs. It is manageable, but not extremely responsive either. Overall, I find it much easier to navigate on my phone rather than on computer, and I recommend reading through the app rather than on the Mainichi website.
  • The magazine is a little late on topical issues, but that is certainly inevitable.
  • As far as I know, there is no sample available to read before you subscribe, but I may have missed it.
  • Again, I may have missed it, but there does not seem to be notifications to tell you when a new issue is available.

Conclusion

I tried to list all the downsides I could think of, but I personally find that the great content and low prize of the magazine largely make up for all the downsides I noted.

I wish I had known this magazine sooner, it would have been such a great reading material when I was working towards N2… I will keep the subscription for now because I enjoy reading the magazine, and I also feels that it keeps me close to topical issues and makes me learn interesting facts I didn’t know (for example, that Yamato city issued a law that forbid watching your phone while walking the streets!).

Book review: 『白馬山荘殺人事件』 by Keigo Higashino

Introduction

Title: 『白馬山荘殺人事件』 (はくばさんそうさつじんじけん)
Author: Keigo Higashino (東野圭吾)
Published by 光文社文庫

『白馬山荘殺人事件』 is one of Keigo Higashino’s first novels. First published by 光文社 in 1986, the book got its first 文庫 edition in 1990 and got a new re-print this year (2020) with a new cover design and a bigger font.

Review

The more I read Keigo Higashino, the more I think that I like his earlier writings the most (with the exception of the Kaga series, for which I find that the books get better and better). Based on the books that I have read that date from the late 80s and early 90s like 『白馬山荘殺人事件』, 『仮面山荘殺人事件』 or 『回廊亭の殺人』, I find that the story is mainly focused on solving the murder and revealing the truth rather than going deep into the characters’ life or feelings. All three novels set their story in a remote place, with a limited number of characters and even if the end did not always convince me, I found these novels extremely engrossing. Later writings seem to expand the story in terms of place and time, with characters and topics that are more complex like 『虚ろな十字架』, 『夢幻花』 or 『流星の絆』, but they also get away from the old-fashioned whodunnit setting.

In detective fiction, I like nothing more than having a bunch of characters all in one place, a corpse, and a professional or amateur detective trying to sort things out, while a second murder is on the making, so I was bound to love 『白馬山荘殺人事件』 . Keigo Higashino also added a mysterious code to crack to spice things up.

I would not say that 『白馬山荘殺人事件』 belongs to the best Higashino I have read (the Kaga series remains by far the best books to me), but it read quickly, was entertaining and delivered exactly what I was expecting from a detective story. I would say that it lacked a little in terms of suspense, but overall, it was a very engrossing read.

Book review: 『アンフィニシュトの書』 by Shinya Asashiro

Introduction

Title: 『アンフィニシュトの書』 (The Unfinished Book)
Author: Shinya ASASHIRO (浅白深也)
Published by 電撃文庫

I could not find much information about this book or the author…

Review

I bought this book to get into light novels (this is the first Dengeki book I read), and I was very surprised by how entertaining it was. When I chose this book, I thought it would be some kind of love story, and I was delighted when I realised that it was in fact a very nice mystery.

This being said, the story is very predictable and the mystery extremely easy to crack (in my opinion). At around one third of the book I was able to predict how the story would unfold and what would happen. Apart from some details and minor twists that I had not foreseen, the story did not have much to offer that I hadn’t already guessed. It felt like reading a detective book for children at times.

However, this did not prevent me from enjoying the story. Even if I think that the book could have challenged the reader a little more, following the protagonist in his adventure was extremely enjoyable and the story engrossing. I liked the characters and the settings, I liked the mechanism behind the story and overall, had a very pleasant time reading this book.

If you want to read a light novel with an interesting plot mechanism and a whodunnit flavour, this book is perfect. If you want to read a murder mystery that challenges you to find the culprit, you will certainly find 『アンフィニシュトの書』 too easy. Finally, if you are looking for easy books, I found this one quite easy to read. There is a repetitive pattern too, which makes it easier and easier to read as you get used to the vocabulary, characters and places.

Overall, this book was perfect to me because it was a mix of things that I love in novels: crime, mystery and books. If the author decides to makes a series around this theme, I will definitely be there for the other titles!

Note: you can read the first 47 pages on the publisher’s website.

August wrap up

September already! It’s time to go through the books I read in August:

It rained almost every day of August, as South Korea has experienced its longest rainy season this year, so there was not much else to do this Summer than to stay at home with a good book. I managed to complete my reading challenge of August and to read two additional books.

『きみの名は。』 by Makoto Shinkai (新海誠) and 『そして父になる』 by Akira Sano (佐野晶)

I read these two novelisations while watching the film. I already talked a lot about reading these two books in Japanese in my post about reading novelisations, so I’ll just link to it here and move on to the next books.

『11文字の殺人』 by Keigo Higashino (東野圭吾)

When freelance writer Masayuki Kawazu is found murdered, his girlfriend, an author of detective novels, starts to investigate.

This is one of Higashino’s first novels, and it was a real page-turner that I read in four days.

I am very tempted to say that this is the easiest, or at least one of the easiest, Higashino I have read. As my level improves over time, I am bound to find the books I am reading today easier than those I read two or three years ago. But trying to stay as objective as possible, I have to conclude that this book is really on the easy side.

First of all, there are a lot of dialogues. Apart from the end, the core of the novel is based on interviews: our protagonist is investigating the murder of her partner and does not have other means to do it than to talk to people who might be related to the case. The case and deductions are not difficult to follow and I found that the author did not use a wide range of vocabulary.

The only difficulty is to remember who is who in this novel. I have listed 18 characters, but I may have missed one or two. Writing a simple list with the character’s name and one or two words about who they are can really save you a lot of time if, like me, you tend to forget quickly who secondary characters are.

『11文字の殺人』 is definitely a novel that I recommend if you are looking for an easy detective novel.

『六番目の小夜子』 by Riku Onda (恩田陸)

There is a peculiar tradition in our protagonists’ highschool: once every three years, a student is chosen to be the new “Sayoko”, who has a special mission for the school year. This year, however, a new student named Sayoko Tsumura is transferred to the school…

I had this novel on my shelf for a long time, but never got around to reading it. It is a school mystery, I guess, though it is difficult to really classify it.

I found the prologue very promising and was excited to jump into the story. In the end, I found that the novel did not deliver much thrill in terms of suspense or mystery, contrary to what the prologue had let me think.

The first third of the book was very engrossing though. The book looked like a good mystery with a peculiar school tradition as a background. But then, it shifts to more supernatural or mystic elements, and I started to lose interest. The more we learn about the school tradition, the less interesting it became, and overall, I could not understand what was the point of it all.

As for the language level, I would say that for me, this book is still in the “easy reads” bracket but on the higher end. If we compare it to the other books I read this month, it is clearly on the difficult side. Part of the difficulty is that the story is very secretive about what exactly is going on and what is the true nature of this school’s tradition, so I often ended up confused about whether I missed something because of the Japanese, or if the book intentionally left the reader in the dark.

Overall, I am rather disappointed because the prologue kind of promised you an exciting murder mystery, but the mystery turned out to be underwhelming. I had to force myself through the last third of the book, because at the time, I thought I might end up DNFing another of my current reads (see below), and I did not want to end up with two unfinished books in August. (It turned out that the other book became more and more engrossing, so I could have safely left 『六番目の小夜子』 unfinished…)

『いたいのいたいの、とんでゆけ』 by Sugaru Miaki (三秋縋)

22 year-old Mizuho Yugami is going through a difficult time, but things gets worse as he knocks over a high school student while drunk driving. However, things take an unexpected turn of events.

I chose this book because I wanted to read a light novel, but apparently, books from メディアワークス文庫 are not light novels (like I thought they were), but a spin-off of 電撃文庫, targeting adult readers who enjoyed light novels and who want to read entertaining stories.

I found that 『いたいのいたいの、とんでゆけ』 had a very slow start, and the first 70/80 pages felt like reading Norwegian Wood to me. At that point, I really thought about DNFing this book because I did not like Norwegian Wood and did not want to read a similar story. As a result, I put it aside and did not touch it for a week or so. At the same time, I was struggling to finish 『六番目の小夜子』 because I was almost certain that I would never pick up 『いたいのいたいの、とんでゆけ』again.

I did though, and I just had to read a couple more pages for the story to kick off. From that point on, it became extremely entertaining.

I would say that this novel was on the easy side for me, but it is not something I would recommend for a first read. There are some introspective passages and descriptions of action scenes that, while not difficult per se, still raise the overall level of the book.

I chose this book more for my blog (in order to recommend or make a list of easy books) than for my personal enjoyment, but it turned out to be more entertaining than I thought it would be. I am definitely going to read more メディアワークス文庫 books in the future.

『ガリレオの苦悩』 by Keigo Higashino (東野圭吾)

Yukawa, alias Galileo, has stopped working with the police, but Kaoru Utsumi, a new detective working under Kusanagi, is taking the lead in cases that might be more complicated than they look. Her zeal is enough to draw Yukawa in the heart of cases once again.

This is the 4th episode in my reading the Galileo series in Japanese. This one is a collection of short stories that has not been translated into English. I was expecting something similar to the first two books (which were short stories too), but it was surprisingly different, with the introduction of Kaoru Utsumi, Kusanagi’s assistant who also appears in Salvation of a Saint. Kusanagi and Yukawa’s relationship has changed since The Devotion of Suspect X, so overall this book feels like an important chapter in the series.

As usual, I find Keigo Higashino easy to read, but I must say that Yukawa’s scientific explanations still leave me very confused and a little bored. I find them difficult to read in Japanese, but I am sure they would be as difficult to me in English (or in French for that matter). If you add the difficulty of specialised vocabulary that I don’t know in Japanese, to my natural unwillingness to make efforts to understand scientific phenomenons, no wonder that I don’t understand exactly Yukawa’s demonstrations.

But this does not prevent me from enjoying the stories, though I must admit that Kaoru taking the place of Kusanagi in the duo with Yukawa made me quite sad.

August rankings

First, I ranked the books I read in August from my favourite to the one I enjoyed the less:

  1. 『そして父になる』: By far the best read of this month. Watching the film and reading the book in parallel was a great experience. The book is the best novelisation I have read so far, it adds a lot to the story and the characters. Highly recommended!
  2. 『ガリレオの苦悩』 : Not only a great book in the series, but a decisive one that introduces a new character to the team and focuses more on Yukawa than the previous titles.
  3. 『11文字の殺人』 : Not the best Higashino, but a very entertaining one, very easy to read and a good way to relax while still reading in Japanese.
  4. 『いたいのいたいの、とんでゆけ』: Has quite a slow start and a rather far-fetched mechanism, but once the revenge theme kicks off, was quite entertaining, with a surprising twist at the end!
  5. 『君の名は。』: As much as I love the movie, reading the book has not been such a great experience…
  6. 『六番目の小夜子』 : Overall disappointed in the story.

Then, I tried to rank them by difficulty level, from the easiest to the most difficult:

  1. 『11文字の殺人』 : By far the easiest to me.
  2. 『そして父になる』 : I found this one easy to read, but watching the film at the same time undoubtedly helped.
  3. 『いたいのいたいの、とんでゆけ』: Nothing particularly difficult apart some action scenes maybe.
  4. 『ガリレオの苦悩』 :Overall easier to read than いたいの, but the scientific explanations parts were quite challenging to me, so I put it on the 4th position.
  5. 『君の名は。』: Some descriptions are quite challenging with the author using a flowery/poetic language.
  6. 『六番目の小夜子』 : This is the only novel where I am not sure whether I understood everything correctly, but it might just come from the story itself and the fact that there was not much to understand in the first place – like I said, the mystery is underwhelming. I think this book would have left me perplexed in any language.

September reading challenge

I feel motivated to read my way through my TBR! A recent discussion on Twitter made me realise that I have accumulated 20+ unread books… It also gave me enough willpower to start picking up these books at last. I also need to keep track of my reading challenge for 2020, given that there are only 4 months remaining. There is no problem doing both at the same time though. According to my reading challenge, I must focus my readings on nonfiction and literary prize winners, and I have both on my TBR pile, so I guess I have no excuse:

Book review: 『JR上野駅公園口』 by Miri Yu

Introduction

Title: 『JR上野駅公園口』 (うえのえきこうえんぐち)
Author: Miri YU (柳美里)
Published by 河出文庫

Miri Yu has won the Akutagawa Prize for 『家族シネマ』.

First published in 2014, 『JR上野駅公園口』 has been translated into English in 2019 by Morgan Giles under the title Tokyo Ueno Station. The translation is published by Tilted Axis Press (UK) and Penguin Random House (US).

The novel had been translated into French by Sophie Rèfle in 2015 (Sortie parc, gare d’Ueno, Actes Sud).

Review

It is always a little awkward to say that you don’t like a widely praised book, but 『JR上野駅公園口』 is not a book that I enjoyed reading. I can see why people praise it, and yes I also found some of the book’s topics fascinating, but the way it is written prevented me from loving the story or even feel very involved in the protagonist’s fate.

I bought this book because of the many positive reviews it received when the English translation came out. The general impression I had after reading some reviews was that the book would mainly be about the situation of homeless people in Ueno Park, the life of the protagonist Kazu who worked on construction sites for the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, disparities between rich and poor and historical moments of post-war Japan.

All these topics are present in the novel of course, but the book is also much more than that, it is a very complex novel that cannot be reduced to a list of topics. The author’s narrative choices and writing style certainly give the book a lot of depth, but it also kept me away from the story all along.

Only part of the novel is about the concrete situation of homeless people in Ueno park, and while these parts were powerful and fascinating, it is not the main topic of the book. Similarly, episodes of Kazu’s past are not exactly what reviews, or even the summary of the book, had made me hoping for. Kazu has worked as a labourer to build the facilities for the Olympics. I was very interested in this aspect of Kazu’s life and would have loved to learn more about this experience. But flash-backs on Kazu’s past do not really develop on these topics. For example, there is a long passage describing Buddhist funeral rites, and it is when I reached this point that I realised that this book was not what I expected.

Apart from this, there are aspects of the book that did not work for me. There are some explanatory passages that are quite lengthy and very dry. To put it simply, Kazu remembers one character having explained some historical facts to him, and the novel suddenly enters a kind of Wikipedia mode. I am always enthusiastic when authors adds historical elements in their novel, but surely there are better ways to integrate them than giving a character a long monologue that is not related to the story. As it is, it looks like an artificial addition made by the author, not something that would be linked to the story, the narrator or the characters.

More generally speaking, I could not sympathise with or feel much emotion for the protagonist. This is strange because Kazu is the kind of character that I usually easily feel close to in novels. I guess that having to go through many passages that I cannot describe otherwise than tiring to read, dragged me away from the story and from the protagonist.

To conclude, I loved the idea behind the book and I found that the structure of the book had a lot of potential. I just don’t like how it was made in the end.

With so many people loving this book, I am clearly in the minority of readers for whom it did not work. If you are interested in reading 『JR上野駅公園口』, I recommend the translation by Morgan Giles which is excellent and well written. I personally found the Japanese quite tiring to read, and I ended up reading the Japanese and the translation in parallel (I talked more about it in my wrap up of July).

Inhae reads the news: August 2020

Welcome to a new episode in my series “Inhae reads the news (in Japanese!)”. As usual, I choose three different topics for the month and study what different newspapers say about them in their editorial. Ideally, I want to compare how conservative and left-wing newspapers handle the same topic, but this series’ main goal is for me to improve my Japanese, encourage me to read news articles regularly, and get familiar with social and political issues in Japan. I am also translating some extracts because I find that it is a good way to check my comprehension of difficult passages, but I am still struggling a lot with that exercise…

I only had time for two topics this month:

  • Korean court ruling on forced labour victims: aftermaths
  • 75th anniversary of the end of WWII.

News 1: Korean court ruling on forced labour victims: aftermaths

This might not have been a breaking news in Japanese media, but this is one of the topics I am the most interested in, so we’ll start this month with the Korean Court ruling over the forced labourers issue.

Along with the comfort women issue, the forced labourers issue remains a topic of tension between Japan and Korea. During the end of WWII, as Korea was under Japanese rule (1910-1945), a large number of Koreans were conscripted to participate in Japan’s war effort, either as soldiers or as workers in factories and mines. Many of them worked in very poor conditions. I saw the numbers of 670,000 labourers sent to Japan and 60,000 deaths, but I don’t have sources other than Wikipedia.

If you are interested in this issue, you can watch the Korean film The Battleship Island, which is an action film with historical background, not an accurate historical film. I personally disliked it, but if you like action films, this one gives at least an idea of how the problem is depicted in Korea.

Korean and Japanese governments have settled the issue with the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea of 1965. Japan has provided financial compensation to Korea for its colonial rule, and the treaty was supposed to close the issue. The Japanese government has since refused any claim for individual compensation by Koreans, saying that the matter had been completely and finally settled by the treaty of 1965.

In 2018 however, the Supreme Court of South Korea ruled that 10 forced labour victims were able to claim compensation from several Japanese companies including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Nachi-Fujikoshi and Nippon Steel. The court’s argument was that the treaty only covers government-level compensations and not individual compensations.

The Japanese government’s response has been to restrict exports to South Korea and to remove the country from its list of favoured trading partners, leading to the recent Japan-South Korea trade dispute and to a palpable deterioration of the two countries’ relationship.

As the Japanese firms have refused to pay, the Korean court has issued the order to forcibly seize and liquidate the assets of two Japanese firms, Nippon Steel and Nachi-Fujikoshi Corp.. However, the documents stipulating the court order had not been delivered to the firms in question, which has delayed the proceedings to liquidating the firms’ assets.

On Tuesday 4th, the documents finally reached the Japanese firms and the news made the editorial of two newspapers:

Mainichi: 徴用工問題の深刻化 韓国は最悪の事態回避を
Sankei: 「徴用工」問題 現金化なら直ちに制裁を

Useful vocabulary

徴用工ちょうようこうDrafted worker, conscripted worker.
This seems to be the word widely used in Japan to refer to Korean forced labourers. This particular issue we are talking about is referred to as 徴用工訴訟問題. In English, the term “forced labour” is generally used. Similarly, Koreans use the term 강제노동(强制勞動, forced labour) or, to be sure, 강제징용노동(强制徵用勞動, forced conscripted labour), which sounds a little redundant.
訴訟そしょうlawsuit.
In this case, the plaintiff won the lawsuit, so we see the word 勝訴 (しょうそ, victory in a legal suit)
資産しさんproperty, wealth. Here: assets.
現金化げんきんかChanging into cash.
I don’t know concretely how it works, but as the Japanese firms have refused to pay compensations to the plaintiffs, Korea will seize their assets and change them into money to compensate the victims.
売却ばいきゃくsale, disposal by sale.
Here again, we are talking about the Japanese firms assets.
最高裁判所さいこう
さいばんしょ
Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court of Korea is named 大法院, and is often referred to as 大韓民国大法院 or 韓国大法院 in Japanese.
日韓請求権協定にっかん
せいきゅうけん
きょうてい
Agreement signed alongside the treaty of 1965.
The complete name of the agreement is super long: 財産及び請求権に関する問題の解決並びに経済協力に関する日本国と大韓民国との間の協定.
I am not sure, but I think that it is this particular agreement that stated 1-the compensation provided by Japan to Korea, 2- that wartime issues were completely and finally settled (完全かつ最終的に解決された), and 3- that Korea agreed to demand no further compensation.
International articles usually refer to the Treaty itself (in Japanese: 日本国と大韓民国との間の基本関係に関する条約 or simply 日韓基本条約), but I found that Japanese newspapers often refer to the agreement rather than the treaty.
三権分立けんりょく
ぶんりつ
Separation of powers.
The separation of powers is the reason given by president Moon Jae-in to justify his not interfering with the court ruling.

No need to say that Mainichi and Sankei’s editorial will have a very different tone on this matter. I except Sankei to strongly condemn Korea’s government and court ruling, while I guess that Mainichi’s position would be more balanced.

Now that the documents have reached Japanese firms, the formalities leading to the liquidation of the assets can proceed. Even though the whole process might take several months, Mainichi deplores that it will lead to an inevitable deterioration of the two countries relationship once it is done.

Mainichi criticises the Korean government, saying that it must have foreseen that Japan would be forced to respond, and that it would lead to a new crisis:

日本政府は売却への対抗措置を取らざるをえない。自国民の財産を保護しなければならないからだ。それは、韓国政府も当初から認識していたはずである。

The Japanese government will not have other choice but to take countermeasures against the liquidation, because it must protect the property of its citizens. This is something that the Korean government was aware of from the start.

Sankei has a similar paragraph but the formulation is very different:

現金化により日本企業の資産が不当に奪われるなら、政府は厳格な対韓制裁に直ちに踏み切るべきだ。韓国から撤回と謝罪があるまで緩めてはならない。

If the property of Japanese firms is stolen undeservedly to convert into cash, our government must take at once strict sanctions against Korea. And we mustn’t relax the sanctions as long as Korea has not reverted the court’s decision and apologized.

Theses two paragraphs bear the same meaning, but with different formulations: Mainichi says that Japan will have no other choice than to respond (取らざるをえない), while Sankei says that it must respond (踏み切るべきだ). Sankei also uses the expression “undeservedly steal” while Mainichi only talks about “protecting Japanese properties”. Finally, Mainichi talks about “countermeasures” while Sankei uses the word “sanctions”.

Just after talking about the inevitable Japanese response, Mainichi adds:

それは、韓国政府も当初から認識していたはずである。

This is something that the Korean government was aware of from the start.

This implies that Moon Jae-in government, while foreseeing that the court ruling would lead to new tensions between the two countries, decided to stay put and let the situation worsen.

Sankei, in its more direct manner, also blame Moon Jae-in and his government for the past (and certainly upcoming) tensions:

日本企業の韓国離れが進んでいるが、司法の暴走を助長し、両国関係の基盤を掘り崩している文政権が招いた事態である。

Japanese firms are leaving Korea one after the other and the basis of the two countries relationship is undermined, but this situation has been brought on by Moon Jae-in government itself, who encouraged this judicial madness.

Moon Jae-in invoked the separation of powers to say that he could not interfere with the court’s ruling. But Mainichi says that the treaty signed by the two countries is a political matter, not a judicial one. As a consequence, justice should not interfere with what has been agreed upon by both governments.

Mainichi ends its article by criticising both governments. Korea for deteriorating international relationships:

条約締結から半世紀後の司法判断で適用範囲を一方的に変更できるなら、安定した国家間の関係を築くことは難しい。

If a judicial judgement can unilaterally change the field of application of a treaty half a century after it has been concluded, it will be difficult to build stable international relationship.

And Japan for its response to it:

ただし、日本側の高圧的な姿勢は逆効果しか生まないだろう。報復措置をちらつかせて韓国側を動かせるのであれば、事態はとうに収拾されているはずだ。

However, Japan’s high-handed posture can only be counterproductive. If bringing out retaliatory measures was enough to influence Korea’s decisions, the situation would be under control long ago.

For Sankei, there is no need to pay compensation now, not because the matter had been settled with the treaty of 1965 but because there was no reason to pay in the first place:

そもそも応じる必要のない要求だ。賠償命令自体が歴史をねじ曲げ、日韓両国間の協定を無視した暴挙であり、容認できない。

There is no need to answer these claims in the first place. The order of compensation itself is an outrage that disregards the agreement between Japan and Korea and twists history. We cannot accept it.

Sankei obviously criticises the court ruling:

賠償を命じた韓国最高裁の判決は信じ難い代物だ。「不法な植民地支配と侵略戦争遂行に直結した反人道的不法行為」などと決めつけている。

The judgement made by the Supreme Court of South Korea to order compensation is hard to believe, with assumptions like: “The Japanese government’s inhuman and illegal actions that are directly connected with the illegal colonial rule and war of aggression [against Korea]”.

I guess that the reason why Sankei quotes this sentence as “difficult to believe” is because of the expression “war of aggression”. The annexation of Korea has not been made by a military invasion of the country. The usurpation of Korea’s sovereignty by Japan has been made by increments, during and in the aftermaths of the Russo-Japanese war. The Japan-Korea Protocol of 1904 allowed Japan to interfere in domestic matters and to use strategic locations in Korea. The Japan-Korea Treaty of 1905 deprived Korea of its diplomatic sovereignty and made Korea a protectorate of Japan. Another Japan-Korea Treaty established in 1907 the office of a Japanese Resident General and deprived Korea of the administration of its internal affairs. Finally, political machinations, pressure, intimidation and a growing presence of Japanese military in Korea have led to the signature of the Japan-Korea Annexation treaty of 1910. Obviously, all theses treaties have been forced on Korea, but I think that the expression “war of aggression” in the context of Korea’s annexation is strictly speaking incorrect. At least, I guess that this is what Sankei is pointing out.

Finally, Sankei refutes that Korean labourers were treated differently than Japanese ones:

国民徴用令に基づき、昭和19年9月以降働いていた朝鮮半島出身者がいたのは事実だが、韓国側のいうような強制労働ではない。賃金の支払いを伴う合法的な勤労動員にすぎず、内地人も同じように働いていたのである。

It is a fact that Koreans were working [for Japanese companies] since the national mobilisation decree in September 1944, but it was not forced (slaved) labour as Korea says. They were nothing more than legally mobilised wartime workers who received wages and who worked in the same conditions than Japanese workers.

I think that Sankei is using the words 朝鮮半島出身者 and 内地人 instead of “Korean” and “Japanese” to emphasise the fact that Korea was a part of Japan at the time. I simplified in my translation.

Sankei goes as far as saying that if compensation must be paid, it should be paid by Korea to Japan, to repay for the compensations already provided according to the treaty of 1965.

Note: you can also read Sankei’s editorial of the 16th which has a similar anti-Moon Jae-in vibe to it.

To conclude, Sankei and Mainichi both criticise Korea’s court ruling but not for the same reason. Mainichi points out two problems: 1- the inevitable tensions this ruling will lead to and 2- the awkward contradiction of this ruling with the treaty of 1965, but they do not question the status of Korean forced labourers. Sankei however criticises the ruling because they consider that there was no need for compensation in the first place.

Topic 2: End of WWII: 75th Anniversary

On August 15th, Japan marked the 75th anniversary of its surrender and the end of WWII. A ceremony organised by the government was held in Tokyo on the 15th, but with anti-coronavirus measures, attendance was only of 550 persons compared to the 6000 of last year.

During the ceremony, Emperor Naruhito expressed deep remorse over Japan’s wartime actions.

Prime Minister Abe has not offered apologies during his speech, but he refrained from visiting the Yasukuni Shrine.

Needless to say, our newspapers have all devoted one, if not several, editorials to the end of the war anniversary. I will only study:

Yomiuri: 戦後75年 国際協調維持へ役割果たそう
Mainichi: 戦後75年を迎えて 歴史を置き去りにしない
Asahi: 戦後75年の現在地 不戦と民主の誓い、新たに

Useful vocabulary:

終戦しゅうせんthe end of the war
戦没者せんぼつしゃthe war dead
追悼式ついとうしきa memorial service
昭和戦争しょうわせんそうExpression used by Yomiuri Shimbun to talk about the wars of the Showa period: the Mukden Incident, the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War.
極東国際
軍事裁判
きょくとうこくさい
ぐんじさいばん
International Military Tribunal for the Far East
日米開戦にちべいかいせんThe start of the war between Japan and the United States
全体主義ぜんたいしゅぎtotalitarianism
治安維持法ちあんいじほうPeace Preservation Law.
Series of laws enacted from 1894 to 1925 in order to suppress political dissent. They drastically restricted freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
挙国一致きょこくいっちないかくNational unity.
負の歴史ふのれきしNegative or dark side of a country’s history.
I don’t know how to translate this word… Is “negative history” a term in English? It seems to be mainly used in the medical field… I guess “dark side of history” is okay? Or maybe it is best to talk about “negative legacy of history”?
国家主義こっかしゅぎNationalism
民主国家みんしゅこっかDemocracy
国民主権こくみんしゅけんThe principle of popular sovereignty

Mainichi and Asahi editorials contain the same message. They both warn against populism which led to Japan’s going into war with the United States, and they underline the importance of public awareness and its capacity to question government’s decisions. However, Mainichi is ending its article on a positive note, while Asahi is noting that Abe government is threatening democracy.

As for Yomiuri, it has a very different editorial. While warning against populism and calling for peace, the article also calls to strenghten the role of the SDF and teach “correct” history.

Mainichi underlines that just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the public opinion was largely in favour of the war. Many intellectuals of the time were supporting the war against the United States:

日米開戦の報に接した高揚感を日記や詩に記した文化人も少なくない。

Many intellectuals have mentioned their sense of exhalation in their poems or diaries at the news of Japan declaring war to the United States.

Mainichi quotes Yoko Kato (professor at Tokyo University and author of 『それでも、日本人は「戦争」を選んだ』) to explain the reason for this pro-war sentiment among the Japanese public. Yoko Kato says that since the Mukden Incident, Japanese people have been fed with anti-american/british discourses.

Asahi makes a similar remark about the main sentiment among the citizens before the outbreak of war. The article says that Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” applies also to Japan and quotes Shinpei Ikejima from the magazine 文芸春秋 supporting the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Mainichi and Asahi also mention that at the time, media were not free:

Asahi: 治安維持法などにより、言論が厳しく取り締まられた時代である。軍部が情報を操作し、朝日新聞を含むメディアは真実を伝えず、国民は多くを知らないまま一色に染まった。

It was a time were freedom of speech was rigorously controlled with regulations like the Peace Preservation Laws. The military authorities fabricated information and media, Asahi included, were all uniformly reporting the same things, hiding the truth to the people and letting them in ignorance.

Mainichi also mentions the Peace Preservation Laws, and the fact that the authorities had supressed anti-war discourses. People did not have access to proper information and embraced the war under the slogan of national unity. The article also adds:

メディアも偏狭なナショナリズムをあおる報道を展開した。

Media too spread information that inflamed people’s nationalism.

Both newspapers insist on the importance of social and political awareness among citizens, especially in a time of crisis, like the coronavirus crisis we are living now.

For Mainichi, the coronavirus crisis has led people to question the government’s decisions and actions:

その中で、国家は何をすべきかを問い、その対策に厳しい目を注ぐ国民が全体でこれほどまでに増えたのは、戦後75年にして初めてではないだろうか。

[…] It might well be the first time since the war that the citizens so massively question what the government must do and closely and carefully watch the government’s measures.

And Mainichi concludes that it is the political and social awareness of the people that makes a strong society.

For Asahi, however, the growing awareness of the public is darkened by the tendency of Abe government to conceal information from the public.

むしろ、背を向けているのは政府のほうではないか。安倍政権による国会軽視の数々。市民に必要な情報公開どころか、公文書の改ざんや隠蔽(いんぺい)にまで及んだ権力の乱用は、国民主権への冒涜(ぼうとく)というほかない。

But isn’t it the government who is turning its back on [democratic principles of our Constitution], with the number of times where Abe government has treated the Diet lightly. Far from disclosing the information that the citizens need, they have gone as far as abusing their power by concealing and falsifying official documents. It is nothing less than a profanation of popular sovereignty.

Yomiuri’s article also warns against populism, but the general tone is different. Taking North Korea’s constant threat as an example, the article mentions the necessity to give the SDF a wider range of action:

最も切迫した脅威は核・ミサイル開発を進め、挑発を繰り返す北朝鮮である。自衛隊の役割を強化し、日米同盟を強固なものにする努力が肝要だ。

The most pressing menace is North Korea who sends provocation after provocation and is moving forward with its launch of missiles and its nuclear programme. It is essential to work towards strengthening the alliance between Japan and the United States and to reinforce the function of the SDF.

I don’t know exactly what they mean by “自衛隊の役割を強化し”. Do they just mean “to ascertain” the SDF status by amending the article 9 of the Constitution or do they mean “to augment” the SDF function by allowing it to participate in more military operations (not just defence and humanitarian operations)?

Then, mentioning territorial dispute with Russia and the Korean issue of the forced labourers, Yomiuri ends its article by saying:

戦後75年を機に、領土や戦後処理の歴史を、若い世代に正しく伝えていくことが重要である。

75 years after the end of the war, it is important to teach correct history relative to territorial questions and how things have been settled after the war to the younger generations.

We are far from Mainichi’s own call:

その時に支えとなるのは、戦争の真の姿に対する理解だろう。イデオロギーを先行させたり国家のメンツにこだわったりせず、「負の歴史」との尽きることのない対話から得る理性が重要となる。

What we need is to understand the true nature of war. It is not something we can achieve by putting ideology first or by being obsessive with saving the face of our country. We can only achieve it through a dialogue that does not stop at the negative sides of our history.

Book review: 『日本沈没2020』 by Toshio Yoshitaka

Introduction

Title: 『日本沈没2020』 (にほんちんぼつ2020)
Author (novelisation): Toshio YOSHITAKA (吉高寿男)
Published by 文春文庫
284 pages.

This is the novelisation of the Netflix anime series 『日本沈没2020』, which was inspired by the novel 『日本沈没』 by famous author of SF Sakyo Komatsu (小松左京). It was published in 1973 in Japan (two volumes) and translated into English by Michael Gallagher under the title Japan sinks. The anime is currently available on Netflix (10 episodes of 25 minutes).

The author of the novelisation, Toshio Yoshitaka, is also the scriptwriter of the series.

Review

I first read the book and then watched the series. Overall, I liked the story of Japan Sinks 2020, but there are also several things I did not like in the series. As for the book, I cannot say that I enjoyed reading it, because it was a strict novelisation that did not add much to the stories or the characters.

The story is mainly focused on the Mutoh family and how they try to survive after a violent earthquake shakes the country and destroys everything around them.

I liked the Mutohs being a mixed couple and the two children, Ayumu and Go being half-Japanese half-Filipino (from their mother). I liked the character of Ayumu and found her relationship with her mother very interesting, though I also found that it could have been more developed in the series as well as in the book. Ayumu’s complex feelings to her mother are an essential part of her personality, and I wish that the novel had gone deeper in this direction.

I also hoped that the story would be more realistic. I was hoping to see how things would unfold if such a catastrophic scenario were to happen: what would be the government’s response, how international assistance would work, how rescue would be organised, what would people do, and so on. The story is mainly focused on the Mutoh family and the people they meet along the way, and some episodes seem strangely disconnected from what is currently happening.

Personally, this is one of the things that I did not like in the series. The whole Shan City episodes, for example, were very weird to me. All of a sudden, the characters do not seem to care anymore, they do not even seem to be aware of what is going on. I wish that the book had given some kind of explanation for this or had shown that the characters do care by using introspective passages. As it stands, I felt weary of the characters at that point because I felt that I could not understand them.

Some of the characters’ choices were also a complete puzzle to me. For example, how come that they befriend Kunio so easily? This just does not seem credible at all. As a consequence, I could not feel close to or identify with the characters in the series, but here again, the book could have been the place to develop on this: how the characters feel toward each other and how their feelings start to change. But the book is strictly following the series scene by scene and almost never adds elements of this kind.

What bothered me the most in the book is that it just feels like the author is describing what appears on screen. As a consequence, we see what the characters do, but not what they think. This also leads to awkward transitions. For example, in episode 3 of the series, our group sees a pickup approaching. The next scene shows our group riding the pickup with Nanami sitting next to the driver while the others are sitting in the back. This kind of sudden transition is perfectly okay in films, but I found it very weird in the novelisation. The book just describes the pickup approaching and then describes our group on the pickup. It does not add any information on how they came to ride it in the first place. Believe me, if you read the novel without knowing the story or having watched the series first, this passage feels very awkward. There are also sentences like 助手席にはななみの姿があった which, once again, feels like the author describes what appears on screen rather than telling a story.

All in all, I think that the novelisation is just too short. Less than 300 pages for a whole season… There are so many things happening, so much pain and tragic events, some very shocking turns of event too, that completely took me by surprise. But similarly to the series, the book just moves on to the next scene, and I thought that I needed more time to digest what had happened. I was constantly thinking “can’t we take a couple of pages to reflect on what has happened? I want to know how the characters feel, what they think…”. But as it was, it sometimes felt like the characters themselves did not care, and I ended up not caring about them anymore at some point.

To sum up, I liked the story overall and while I am not a big fan of the series, I still watched it until the end. The problem about the book is that:

  1. it did not manage to improve what I found were weaknesses in the series (dispassionate characters who are difficult to understand overall, a pace that does not allow you to feel any emotion, little place left to grief or complex feelings, some unrealistic episodes and characters, strange mix of sudden deaths and improbable rescue episodes, etc.)
  2. the book in itself lacked in narrative fluidity that would have made it agreeable to read as a novel.

I can only recommend this novelisation if your goal is to use it to practise reading in Japanese while using the series to help you understand the story (but even then, 『日本沈没2020』 is not particularly easy to read, so it might not be the best choice here). However, I cannot really recommend it as a good novel, and if you have watched the series already, you won’t gain much by reading the novelisation.

Read in Japanese with novelisations

I am not a big fan of novelisations in general, but I have always thought that they could be a great resource to start reading novels in Japanese. I have decided to test this idea myself by reading 『君の名は。』 and 『そして父になる』 while watching the movie (progressing scene by scene).

What I learned from this experience is that novelisations are not necessarily easy to read, but they can be a valuable tool if you don’t feel confident enough to read a novel on your own.

The novelisation of 『君の名は。』 is staying very close to the film, and while it was more difficult than I expected, it can be a good way to practise reading if you adapt your strategy to your level. The novelisation of 『そして父になる』 is more elaborate with many added scenes and dialogues, making it a great practice for intermediate readers.

For each book, I will first write a short review and then discuss how you can use them to practise reading.

『君の名は。』by Makoto Shinkai (新海誠)

Title: 『君の名は。』 (きみのなは。) Your Name.
Director: Makoto SHINKAI (新海誠)
Author: Makoto SHINKAI (新海誠)
Published by 角川文庫
262 pages

Mitsuha (三葉) who lives in the countryside and Taki () who lives in Tokyo start to sporadically wake up in each other’s body…

Book review

One particularity of 『君の名は。』 is that the novelisation was written by the director himself, Makoto Shinkai.

My previous experiences with novelisations have not been great (for example, I did not enjoy reading 『日本沈没2020』), so I did not have big expectations for 『君の名は。』. However, it turned out to be better than I expected.

As the director says in the afterword, he finished writing this book before the film was actually completed, and this is why you sometimes read that the film is an adaptation of the book. However, the director has clearly written 『君の名は。』 with the film in mind. To me, it is clearly a novelisation of a film in the making, rather than an original work.

As a consequence, the book does not add much to the film, and you will not learn anything new by reading it. Visual effects being completely lost, many of the scenes that were striking in the film, tend to lose their impact once in paper. Much of the humour is lost too. As the director says himself in the afterword, 『君の名は。』 is better on screen:

この小説を書こうとは、本当は思っていなかった。こんなことを言ってしまうと読者の方々に失礼かもしれないと思うけれど、『君の名は。』は、アニメーション映画という形がいちばん相応しいと思っていたからだ。(p.254)

Here are some examples showing that the descriptions of the book, while okay, cannot convey the full impact of their respective scenes in the film (in my opinion).

岩に刻まれた、とても古い絵だ。天に長く尾を引く巨大なほうき星。赤や青の顔料が、ライトを受けてちらちらと光っている。(p.145)

その先に、山の頂上をえぐるようにして、カルデラのようなグラウンド大の窪地がある。窪地の内部は緑に覆われた湿原で、その中央付近には一本の大きな樹が立っている。(p.89)

無数のきらめく光がーまるで空にもうひとつの東京が覆い被さったように、そこにはあった。それは夢の景色のように、ただひたすらに、美しい眺めだった。(p.225)

湖が、淡く光っている。私は走ったまま目を凝らす。違う、水が光ってるんじゃなくて、凪いだ水面が空を映してるんだ。まるで鏡のように、湖には二本の光る尾が映り込んでいる。・・・二本?(p.223)

When I was reading the book, I was constantly asking myself how much I would have appreciated the scenery, characters and action if I hadn’t had seen the film prior to reading the novelisation. I felt that most of the descriptions in the book were relatively pale in comparison to what the film delivers, so I’m not sure that you can appreciate all the strength, humour and emotional impact of the story by reading the book alone.

However, the director also gave his characters some consistence by adding inner thoughts and some introspection, so overall, the book is not disagreeable to read.

To conclude, I would never recommend the novel over the film, and overall, I don’t recommend reading the novelisation if your goal is to learn more about the story or to approach the story from a new angle. However, if your goal is to improve your reading skills by practising, then yes, I think that 『君の名は。』 is a good choice, especially if you love the story and the film.

If you want to read a more thorough review of the novelisation with indications concerning the Japanese level required to read it, I recommend going to Kuri’s website: Japanese book club cafe.

Reading practice 『君の名は。』

I guess that Japanese learners might tend to choose 『君の名は。』 as a first novel, thinking that it would be easy to read. Personally, I don’t find this novel particularly easy to read, and it is certainly not the easiest book I have read in Japanese. Some parts are okay but some descriptions are challenging. If you have tried to read 『君の名は。』 and found it difficult, it’s normal. If you have given up thinking that your level is too low, please don’t give up reading altogether and just try another book!

As I said in the review, the film was not completed when the book came out, therefore, there are some differences between the two. Some dialogues do not fit exactly, sometimes the book having more, sometimes the film having more, but overall, it is very easy to follow scene by scene what is on screen and what is on paper, it almost feels like reading the script of the film.

There are different ways you can use a novelisation to help you read in Japanese. Don’t think that you have to read the book the same way from the first to the last page. You can change your strategy as you progress in the book.

If you have never read a book before and are a complete beginner in terms of reading, I recommend to read only the dialogues to start with. You can either watch the film in parallel, progressing scene by scene, or just read the book if you have a good knowledge of the story.

When you feel a little more confident, you can start reading the narrative parts that directly surround the dialogues. They usually give indications concerning how the characters speak, what tone they use, what facial expression they make and so on.

Reading the novelisation and watching the film at the same time can also be a good way to start reading more complex descriptions, if you are at an intermediate/advanced level or if you tend to struggle with descriptive passages. For example, this is how Mitsuha’s village is described:

斜面沿いの狭いアスファルトを下り、いくつかの石垣の階段を降りると、山の影が切れてもろに直射が降りそそぐ。眼下にはまあるい湖、糸守湖。その凪いだ水面が、朝日を反射してびかーっと無遠慮に輝いている。深緑に連なった山々に、青い空に白い雲、隣には無意味にスキップなどしている赤ランドセルのツインテール幼女。そして私は、生足も眩しい女子高生。(p.20)

This description appears very early in the novel, and is quite difficult to read. If you think that you have to understand everything when reading or if you look up every unknown word, this passage is likely to make you think that your level is not good enough to read this book. As I explain in another post, I believe that you must not let descriptions of this sort discourage you. As long as you understand that the author is describing the scenery, you can move on (even if mountains, water, blue sky and white clouds are all you understood).

The good thing with novelisations, is that skipping the whole paragraph is not a problem. If you are able to associate the description with the right passage in the film, you can put aside the whole paragraph and still follow the story. If you want, however, you can also use the film to practise reading this kind of depictions. Try to match unknown words with what you see on screen without looking up words. You are likely to realise that you understand more than you thought at first.

If you want to increase your vocabulary and use the book for a good study session, you can also thoroughly go through a passage like this one. If you learn vocabulary this way, you are more likely to remember it as you are actually seeing what this word stands for and will be able to associate it with a particular scene of the film when reviewing it.

Another example of challenging passage is the description of Tokyo from Taki’s appartment:

眼下には大きな公園のような緑が、たっぷりと広がっている。空は色むらのまったくない、鮮やかなセルリアンブルー。その青と緑の境目に、まるでとっておきの折り紙を丁寧に並べたみたいに、大小のビル群がずらりと並んでいる。その一つひとつには微細で精巧な窓が編み目のように刻印されていて、ある窓は青を映し、ある窓は緑に染まり、ある窓は朝日をきらきらと反射している。(p.52)

These two descriptions can be rather difficult depending on your level, but the rest of the novel is overall much easier, especially the dialogues. This is why I think that 『君の名は。』 can be used at different levels to improve your reading.

Again, you don’t need to read the whole book the same way. You can just read the dialogues for the first 50 pages or so while watching the movie, then slowly expand what you read by reading everything that surrounds the dialogues but keep skipping the descriptive parts or any long block of text that looks too difficult. Towards the end of the book though, you will certainly feel that your reading level has already improved and you might want to challenge yourself by trying to read everything.

To conclude, I would not recommend 『君の名は。』 as an easy book for beginners if your goal is to just read a novel. But if you use it to practise reading by personalising the way you read it, then I am sure it can help you make huge progress.

『そして父になる』by Akira Sano (佐野晶)

Book review

Title: 『そして父になる』(そしてちちになる) Like Father, Like Son
Director: Hirokazu KORE-EDA (是枝裕和)
Author: Akira SANO (佐野晶)
Published by 宝島社
340 pages

Ryota (良多) and Midori (みどり) Nonomiya (野々宮) suddenly learn that their six-year-old son Keita (慶多) is not their biological son. Keita and another boy Ryusei (琉晴) have been switched at birth. The Nonomiyas meet with Ryusei’s parents Yukari (ゆかり) and Yudai (雄大) Saiki (斎木) and discussions to exchange their children begin.

Reading the novelisation of 『そして父になる』 by Akira Sano has been a shock to me. I thought that novelisations were bound to be a boring copy of the original film, but this one is excellent and does not feel like a novelisation at all. The author has added a lot of information that was not explicitly present in the film. All these elements add value to the novelisation and it feels like reading an original work, not an adaptation.

If you have enjoyed the film and are afraid that the author has departed too much from the movie, don’t worry. It never feels like the book is adding random information, but rather the other way around, that the film has suppressed elements that should have been there. In other words, you get the impression that everything described in the novel was there initially but had been cut from the film for duration purposes.

Here are some expamples of added elements that give more consistence to the characters and make the reader feel close to them:

The book does not only describe Keita’s amazement when eating for the first time by the Saikis, it also explains why: 慶多は呆気に取られていた。家では自分が食べる分を皿に取り分けてもらっているのだった。(p.123)

By adding Midori’s thoughts when she is watching Keita eating, the book gives more depth to the character and makes it easy to identify with her: その顔を見ながらみどりは、この味を忘れないで、と思った。ゆかりさんの唐揚げも、どんな高級店の味も、ママの作ってくれた唐揚げには敵わないって思ってほしい。(p.241)

In this scene, it is easy to guess Midori’s feelings, but the book adds it explicitly, making it possible to enjoy the story by reading the book alone: みどりはマフラーを編み続けていたが、次第にその手さばきが遅くなっていた。疲れていたのではない。琉晴の存在が慶多を否が応でも思い出させた。(p.145)

Reading the book made me feel much closer to Midori than I would have felt had I watched the film only. In this case the author adds something that is not suggested in the film, but I feel that it is exactly what Midori is thinking at that moment: ただ同時にみどりは少し心が軽くなるのを感じていた。斎木家と決定的な仲遠いをしてしまえば、交換という話そのものが消滅して…。(p.179)

Generally speaking, the book always tells us what and how the characters are thinking. Each scene is longer in the book than in the film with added dialogues, inner thoughts and emotions, that are all in accordance with what the characters are.

The author also filled the blank between two scenes. A film can jump from one scene to the other without problems, but if a book does that, it might end up with a broken narration. I find that Akira Sano did a great job at connecting the different scenes, even adding which day of the week we currently are, making the reading much smoother. It also gives information the film only suggests like episodes of the characters’ past, how they met and how they feel towards each other.

I find that the film leaves a lot of space to interpretation, with a lot of things that are hinted at but not said. To be honest, without the book, I would have missed a lot of the subtleties present in the film.

Overall, this is an excellent novelisation that I heartily recommend if you have watched the movie and want to read an adaptation. You will learn more about the characters and maybe understand things that you might have missed while watching the film. I also recommend the novel in itself if, for some reason, you are not interested in watching the movie. Personally, I have watched the film for the first time while reading the book, and all the elements added by the author greatly improved the way I experienced the story.

Reading practice with 『そして父になる』

While I found 『そして父になる』 overall easier to read than 『君の名は。』, I also think that it is less appropriate for beginners who want to get into reading books in Japanese. The strategy of reading only dialogues will not work here because the book adds too much information compared to the film, so it will be difficult to make the connection between the two if you are not already comfortable with reading in Japanese.

However, this book is perfect for intermediate readers who can read in Japanese but do not feel confident in reading an entire novel without help. The book is a mix of added parts where you are on your own, and parts that are very close to the film, allowing you to reconnect if needed and gain confidence.

For example, this is how the book describes the shopping center where the two families meet for the second time (p. 81)

みどりは翌日に早速、斎木家に電話を入れた。電話に出たのは妻のゆかりだった。土曜日に前橋に出向く旨を伝えた。どこで待ち合わせるかを尋ねると、前橋の郊外にある巨大なショッピングセンターを指定してきた

The book adds context and link one episode to another by telling the reader what happened between two scenes (we don’t see Midori calling the Saikis in the film). It also adds a time landmark with 翌日, which makes the reading much smoother and natural. The underlined sentence allows you to link this passage with the film.

みどりは個室のあるレストランなどを想定していたので驚いた。そこで食事でもしながら気楽に会いましょう、と言うのだ。

«気楽に»と言われてみどりは絶句したが、とっさに応じてしまった。

時間と集合場所を確認して電話を切ると、すぐに良多の顔が浮かんだ。不機嫌そうにその顔はしかめられていた。

The book adds information here that is not in the film. It emphasises the gap between the two families: Midori would have thought the private room of a restaurant the natural choice for this kind of meeting, but Yukari casually suggests the snack corner of a shopping center.

そのショッピングセンターは都内では考えられない広さだった。駐車場も大規模なのだが、年末だけに買い物客で溢れ返っていて、良多たちが停めた駐車場からショッピングセンターまでかなりの距離を歩かねばならなかった。

The underlined part is what we see on screen, but the rest is added by the author. Here again, it adds relevant information that makes the book feel like a novel rather than a novelisation.

待ち合わせの場所に指定されたのは«花の広場»という場所だった。そこは五階建ての建物の一階の中央付近にある待ち合わせスポットだった。中央に大きな人工のもみの木があってクリスマスの飾りがされている。いくつものベンチには買い物に疲れた家族らが、座って寛いでいる

Finally, this part is the description of what we see on screen, but with added details that makes the whole depiction more concrete. It does not look like the author is describing what appears on the screen (a feeling that I constantly had when reading the novelisation of 『日本沈没2020』), but rather, that he describes the shopping mall of Maebashi.

This extract shows you how the book follows the film while adding things that are not explicitly present in the film. When reading, you constantly go back and forth between passages that you have to understand on your own and passages that reconnect with the film.

The book sometimes adds entire passages that are not in the film at all, but they are short and are often used to fill the blank between two scenes or give the feeling that a whole day has elapsed instead of just a couple of short episodes. What is great is that even if you stumble across a passage that is hard for you to understand, you know that the book will eventually reconnect with the film, so you can skip these passages without fear of losing track of what happens.

Conclusion

I recommend using novelisations to get into reading books in Japanese if you don’t feel confident enough to jump into a complete unknown story. You can also use novelisations to start reading in Japanese very soon either by reading only the dialogues or by trying to link together what you read and what you see on screen, guessing the meaning of words, associating vocabulary with concrete objects and so on. If your level is good enough to let you read dialogues without problems but if you struggle with long descriptions with metaphors and difficult vocabulary, novelisations can help you there too. In summary, they can be used at different levels with different purposes.

However, keep in mind that novelisations are not necessarily easy to read, especially if the original film contains a lot of striking sceneries or action that the author needs to describe. Don’t get disheartened if you feel that your book is too difficult, just use it smartly and find your own personal ways of practising with it. (Maybe I’ll try other novelisations in the future to find easier ones.)

Note: I personally found 『そして父になる』easier to read than 『君の名は。』, and 『君の名は。』 easier to read than 『日本沈没2020』. I think that the perception we have of a book’s difficulty differs depending on what we are used to reading, our reading tastes and our interest in the story. In novels, I prefer realistic, everyday life settings over fantasy or SF works, so this might explain my ranking.