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How and What to Read

The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper from some random, wind-swept island in the North Sea, has this really cool article by Nick Hornby about how to read. I find it interesting because it applies directly to Japanese study in particular and language study in general. A lot of people sneer at manga readers and anime watchers; they’re not “serious” learners; they’re not doing “real” Japanese.

First of all: WTF? I can’t think of a more important reason to learn Japanese than to read manga. Secondly, what the intellectual snobs fail to realize is that it actually takes a steaming BUTTload lot of intelligence (whatever that means… 🙂 ), background knowledge and kanji competency to be able to make one’s way through a Japanese comic. It’s fun (for me, at least), don’t get me wrong, but it took the largest single self-directed mental effort of my life thus far to get to the point where I could just enjoy a manga, and Japanese kids are no different — you actually have to be pretty freaking smart and literate to read a comic book.

So, not only is reading for pleasure the only reading that’s really worth your time, but it’s also a serious(ly fun) and worthy intellectual exercise. I wish the “if it’s not boring then it’s not good for you” camp could see this, but I really don’t care if they ever do, as long as I can keep getting my Keroro Gunsou on in peace…

By the way, my favorite gem of Hornby advice comes when he suggests that we change books just like we change the channel — when the TV channel is boring, no one suggests you keep ploughing through it because it’s “good for you”. Similarly, if the book is boring you, close it and open a better one. Or, skip the boring part and go to the fun section. Life is too short and there is too much information out there for for you to be attempting to process all of it — you must be selective, and the best selection criterion is what you like. I know, heresy, right? But it’s true: Hornby is right.

  16 comments for “How and What to Read

  1. August 19, 2007 at 09:27

    I have to partially disagree. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t read manga, or that it won’t help you at all, but the kind of manga you choose to read will have a bigger or smaller impact on useable language. (For example, if one were to rean One Piece, that person will learn the word 海賊王, but how is that going to help them in daily life? It doesn’t help me much…)

    It mainly comes down to what your goal is for Japanese, and how fast you want to be able to submerge yourself in the culture as a competent Japanese speaker (or any other language, for that matter). My advice (although not worth much) would be to pick something you enjoy reading, but try and lean towards something down-to-earth; a topic that you might hear being discussed in the local Family Mart.

    • Jason
      November 23, 2010 at 16:45


      Now, a word like 海賊王 is only like, what…10% of the vernacular in One Piece. The other 90% is plain, normal Japanese.

      • June 14, 2012 at 02:55

        Well, I think it is a (very) small factor, because you will (likely) learn more common words first, but honestly, people reading what they like read more anyways which pretty much immediately makes up for it (ex: In one manga 95% of words are “common words” (whatever that means). In the other 90%. Read a couple more pages of the second manga and you will learn just as much.) So basically still, just read whatever you like, as much as you can. Quantity over, eh, “quality”.

  2. khatzumoto
    August 19, 2007 at 09:48


    You are one of my favorite guys. So I want you to know that I don’t disagree with you personally, I merely STRONGLY disagree with the opinion that was expressed in that comment. For these reasons, among others:

    1. There is no such thing as useless word. There are less useful words, less common words, but not useless words.

    2. Take the word 海賊王/pirate-king. Even take the word 光子魚雷/photon-torpedo (from Star Trek). On the surface, these words are useless, but I can think of several sub-reasons why they are actually very useful.

    i. You learn kanji readings. Nuff said.

    ii. These are compound words that are made up of incredibly useful parts. You get to learn the words “pirate”, “king”, “photon” and “torpedo”, all of which I think you would agree are quite useful.

    iii. There are such things as metaphors. A lot of people use references to (fictional) stories in their metaphors. 15-20 years from now (give or take), One Piece will be considered an unequalled classic of Japanese literature. When that day comes, even politicians will be making references to it–especially people of our generation. If you cannot make out what 海賊王 is…

    iv. I would argue that the kind of discussion you would have at the local Family Mart is more shallow and useless than time spent reading One Piece. Seriously, what are you even going to say in the kind of discussion?
    Inane. That’s the one word I would use to describe Family Mart convos: inane. And repetitive.

    3. Even though perhaps 5-10% of the words in a story like One Piece will be specialist vocab specific to that work, the other 90% will be perfectly normal, real, “useful” Japanese. If you can have fun while getting that 90%, I don’t see any harm whatsoever in picking up a 海賊王 or a 光子魚雷 here and there. If you want to be completely utilitarian, go pick up a textbook: they never let you waste a single precious moment on things as trivial as enjoying yourself.

    4. Do you only know “useful” words in English? Can you have a decent conversation with only “useful words”? Do you only talk about the weather in English? “Winnie the Pooh” and “Kaiser Soze” are not very useful words, dude, maybe you shouldn’t have learned them; you could have spent that time having convos at convenience stores (j/k)! Why limit your vocabulary in Japanese? Sure, there is a 優先順位, a priority scale, but the order in which you learn Japanese words will basically take care of itself if you surround yourself with Japanese materials. If a word is common, it will keep coming up and you will have to learn it in order to understand the messages you are receiving.

    5. Besides, usefulness itself is relative. A typical historian doesn’t need a lot of physics vocabulary, a typical physicist doesn’t need a lot of geography vocabulary, etc…If you plan to write manga reviews (which, perhaps, you don’t), you are going to need to know the names of characters like the pirate king, unless you hope to get through all of it saying “that main guy, the dude with the goal and the treasure and stuff”.

    Anyway, that’s my 2 yen. Sorry for being a jerk in my answer. I want you to know that I do respect you, and apologize in advance if anything I said was rude.

  3. khatzumoto
    August 19, 2007 at 10:02

    Having said all that, you’re right, not a lot of the words I read in the naval thriller 沈黙の艦隊/The Silent Service, seem to make it into my daily life…But more than words, there is sentence structure/grammar and cultural knowledge, and again good old ENJOYMENT that one can get out of reading random stuff. As for me, I didn’t learn Japanese just to be useful, I learned it in order to enjoy Japanese cultural products.

  4. Joe
    August 19, 2007 at 10:20

    My son learned to read when he was 4. Now at the age of 8, his reading ability is far beyond his age level, and his conversational level matches a lot of adults I know. How did he get there? By reading “War and Peace” or Dickens?

    Nope: he’s spent the last 4 years reading a lot of “Calvin & Hobbes” and “Foxtrot”, with some Pokemon and a few chapter books. He read what was fun for him, and he’s reaping the rewards.

    Learning happens when your mind is engaged. Maybe your mind will be engaged by manga, or maybe by the Japanese equivalent of “War and Peace”. In either case, there’s little virtue in slogging through boring material which saps your will to live. Life is too short. Read what’s fun and you will learn.

    Maybe “Ranma 1/2” (don’t laugh, it’s my only Japanese manga) doesn’t have the contemporary relevance of a conversation at the Quickie Mart, but you’ll still learn from it. Conversation patterns are just as important as conversations on specific topics, maybe more so.

  5. Mark
    August 19, 2007 at 20:55

    Yep, I completely agree with the opinion that you should read fun stuff – and just as you say, the fun stuff will a) teach you a lot of new words/grammar/kanji readings/etc., and (most importantly, I think) b) encourage you to continue reading and learning. Much better than crushing a nascent desire to learn a language by force feeding yourself/others “worthy” material.

    I have actually read a lot of the “classics”, right from the ancient Greek classics, through Roman classics, and on to the present day (haven’t we all?). But, I was almost put off these books – some of which are quite enjoyable reading! – by having them shoved down my throat at high school.

    So, I must admit, I personally reserve quite a large amount of contempt for those who read only “worthy” material and look down on modern novels or manga or whatever. This certain type of person obviously distains anything that isn’t “painful” to read – personally, I think that if a book is painul to read it is a pretty good indicator that it is crap!

    Obviously, Dickens’ novels were distained as pulp-fiction in his day; I don’t know about Shakespeare, but I somehow feel pretty sure that his works were similarly distained in his time. So, in a hundred years time a lot of the “rubbish” around today will be acclaimed as works of genius, and a lot of (all?) the “high-brow” stuff will be utterly forgotten.

    Glad I got that off my chest!


    Mark – a Brit, from a random isle, which is definitely windswept today (call this summer?!)

  6. Mark
    August 19, 2007 at 21:20

    BTW – not at all related to Japanese, but gotta add: currently on my bedside table I have Alistair Campbell’s diaries, and more importantly a copy of this:

    Have a look, and be sure to read the reviews – particularly the first one. This book is good for two reason: 1. it’s hilarious, and 2. you can take it on the train in the certain knowledge that it will illicit looks of utter disapproval from anyone dressed in a tweed jacket or similar!

    Oh, I am easily pleased. Far “too old” to be easily pleased, but easily pleased nonetheless 🙂

  7. August 20, 2007 at 11:56

    Even my own opinion above just reflects my own bias towards my own fun reading materials. I find utility more entertaining, and I get that from the kind of manga I choose to read (even though I also read some of One Piece and Naruto, and both of those were fun). It just feels like I’ve walked away from other manga being able to use more words immediately.

    I did find a lot of utility in Harry Potter. They use a lot of onomatopoeia, and the levels of speech vary a lot. I guess that really contradicts my comment above.

    Also, one other thing to mention – I think near-beginners should be wary about the structures they read in manga. They can form bad habits of impolite speech, or just sound very comic-booky (have you ever seen Heroes? What they use in the show doesn’t sound like “normal Japanese”.)

    (disregard the flow of this comment – I’m very tired)

  8. August 20, 2007 at 12:02

    Interesting. I learn something new with everyone article. (Oh no, I’m becoming a fanboy!)

    I’d like to take this point to go on a rant …

    I don’t read manga (I’ve tried but I can’t get into it) but I can’t stand those people who say that you shouldn’t learn Japanese just because you like anime/manga. If that’s the only reason for studying Japanese, then so be it! If you only want to study Japanese so you can read the titles of Japanese porno, then learn Japanese! Whatever gets people motivated to study a foreign language is fantastic in my opinion. And who’s to say what’s a worthy reason for studying Japanese and what’s not a worthy reason? Aah!

    Anyway, thanks again. I shall continue to be a humble fanboy.

  9. khatzumoto
    August 20, 2007 at 12:29

    Hey Alex,

    You’re absolutely right about comic-booky Japanese. My spoken and written Japanese were TOTALLY anime/manga-ed out back in the day. Every sentence ending in “ぜ”, and using “俺” like I owned the place. But it was with a Japanese accent and with correct grammar. Through more input, I eventually steered it into a more, I guess, “realistic” direction.

    I don’t know what you think of this one, but it seems to me that perhaps it would be OK to just let beginners learn that sometimes-corny comic book dialogue; it is a part of Japanese pop culture, after all. Provided grammar and pronunciation are correct, it doesn’t seem like it could do any permanent harm: it didn’t harm me. If it’s entertaining, then it’s a gateway to other stuff. If a person can follow a comic, then that’s a wonderful thing, a good thing, and they should go there. I just really, really, really, don’t want us to start being the learning police and be all “you can learn THIS, but not THIS until you are at least THIS tall”. Don’t you just hate when people are all hemming and hawing and giving you paternalistic advice on what you “should” read? It’s like…who died and made them dad of the world? So, we could look at corny anime-style Japanese as phase, a stage in the growth pattern towards native-level fluency.

    > I find utility more entertaining
    Me too! Lots of documentaries and non-fiction science comics on my shelves!

  10. khatzumoto
    August 20, 2007 at 20:12

    Well…(nervous eye movements from side to side) when I speak Japanese I do…otherwise there would be no point.

  11. khatzumoto
    August 22, 2007 at 11:44

    I guess I have some work to do, then! Which article did you send her? She mentioned a lot of Japanese people do not use my writing style. I do “overuse” kanji, in my essays, by the way…I find long strings of hiragana annoying, especially when perfectly good (often 常用) kanji can go in their place; I happen to think that kanji underuse prevalent in a lot of modern Japanese documents is responsible for making kanji seem “harder” for native speakers: if you never see it because so many style guides are advising writers to avoid it, of course it will seem rare and “difficult”. Did your teacher say anything else in detail?

  12. khatzumoto
    August 22, 2007 at 12:40

    Also, I think all the docs should either have numbers or (better yet) Japanese pseudonyms.

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