This week’s recommendation is Crayon Shin-chan by Yoshito Usui (臼井 義人). I think this was the first manga I ever tried to read in Japanese some time ago, but even now I like to go back and read it.
This highly popular manga is about the adventures of a 5-year-old boy called Shinnosuke Nohara (nicknamed Shin-chan) who generally causes a lot of mischief around him, especially his mother.
The manga is split into several shorter stories that are generally only a few pages long. This makes it an ideal manga for Japanese language learners to dip in and out of as and when you have time to study it.
Crayon Shin chan manages to strike a great balance between laugh out loud moments and relatable moments (if you’ve ever had to look after a small child). Some of the humour can be a bit crude – you can find a few of the anime episodes on YouTube so I would recommend checking these out to get an idea of the type of humour you will find in the manga. Besides the anime series there are also several films, so plenty of material to get into if you do find yourself enjoying the manga.
In terms of language level, you can certainly give this a go if you have covered basic grammar and know the usual slang contractions – JLPT N4 and above should suffice. Like most of the manga I recommend this has everyday language and because of Shin chan’s age the vocabulary used is not too difficult. There are quite a few gags which rely on knowledge of puns in Japanese and aspects of Japanese culture, but I have always found this manga on the whole to be accessible as a language learner.
There is apparently a Japanese-English bilingual version of a couple of volumes (called クレヨンしんちゃんの楽しいゾ英会話) which would be a useful way of trying the manga out if you can get yourself a copy.
I recently wrote a post about using songs to learn Japanese. In that post, I didn’t personally recommend any particular types of songs as I believe that you should try to focus on songs you like listening to instead.
However, later on, it dawned on me that Disney songs are a really good way of studying language via songs, especially as a beginner learner.
If you’ve grown up with films such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King (my 90’s kid bias might be showing a bit here!), then listening to the Japanese versions of familiar songs from these films is an enjoyable way of learning new vocabulary. Another advantage of using Disney is that being aimed at kids, the lyrics are normally more straightforward in nature in terms of both grammar and vocabulary and do not have any slang that can often trip up language learners.
How to find song lyrics
I find the best way of finding the Japanese song titles of Disney songs is looking on Wikipedia. For example, if I was looking for the Japanese titles from Frozen I would go to the relevant page and look for information on international releases:
Frozen happens to be a particularly popular film so I could find the song titles under the ‘Japanese release’ tab towards the bottom of the Wiki page for the Frozen soundtrack.
However you may need to go to the English Wiki page first and then select the Japanese version of the same page from the menu on the left hand side. Then look for a category 主題歌 (しゅだいか ‘theme song’) or 挿入歌 (そうにゅうか ‘soundtrack’/ ‘featured songs’) to find song titles – for the most popular songs the English tends to be given in brackets alongside the original Japanese.
Once armed with this information, the website I’ve found the most useful for tracking down Disney song lyrics is this one. Although skewed towards the most popular Disney films of the 1990s, this is the best site I have found with lyrics grouped by the film’s name.
If you are struggling to track down song lyrics, then simply googling the Japanese (or even the English) song title + 歌詞 (かし ‘lyrics’) should lead you to a website with lyrics.
Fortunately a lot of Japanese Disney songs can be found on YouTube with Japanese subtitles too. It helps to know the Japanese title before searching but you may have luck with the English title and if you add ‘Japanese’ on too.
The YouTube channel Nobuyoshi Takeuchi has a large number of Disney songs so is the best place to start.
My favourite Disney songs in Japanese are:
Colours of the Wind/ カラー • オブ • ザ • ウィンド [ポカホンタス/ Pocahontas]
Belle/ ベル [美女と野獣/ Beauty and the Beast]
Love is an Open Door/ 扉を開けて [アナと雪の女王/ Frozen]
What are your favourite Disney songs (in English, Japanese or another language)? Let me know in the comments!
Reading the title you may be thinking, “but how is a browser going to assist my language learning?” As it turns out, there are a couple of nifty extensions available for Google Chrome that I think are essentials for Japanese learners. Here are 3 extensions that I use all the time for boosting my Japanese skills:
Rikaikun (also known as Rikaichan on other platforms such as Firefox, Internet Explorer and Safari).
This is an incredibly popular extension and is a must have for Japanese learners. With this extension activated, you can go to a page in Japanese and hover over any word and the reading and English meaning will be displayed in a handy pop up box. With this, tackling a website entirely in Japanese is a lot less scary!
It is also worth noting that Rikaikun is pretty good at recognising the root of conjugated verbs as well as place names, which can sometimes be an issue with apps like this.
Mainichi is a handy extension which will show you a new piece of vocabulary every time you open a new tab in Chrome. The word is shown in kanji, kana and romaji with a helpful pic – handy for reviewing or learning a new piece of vocabulary.
You cannot choose the type of vocabulary that appears but I have found that there is a good mix between simpler and more complicated everyday vocabulary. Besides Japanese, there are also options for Korean and Mandarin Chinese if you are also learning those languages.
Pocket is not specifically for language learning but I use it a lot for Japanese study. The Pocket app allows you to save a page for offline viewing later.
The Chrome extension allows you to add new pages to read later with a click of a button and will sync with the app if you have this installed on another device. I find this useful for saving news stories online – together with Rikaikun, you can make short work of tricky articles. If you install the app on another device you can start reading on your laptop and carry on reading on your mobile.
Are there any must have extensions (on Google Chrome or any other browser) that you cannot live without? Let me know in the comments.
Early on in my Japanese learning, listening to Japanese songs accidentally became part of my study plan. I do not really listen to new Japanese songs much nowadays but every so often I will go back to artists I know I like and study the vocabulary from their latest songs. Language learning is all about fun, so if you love music I recommend trying this out at least once.
Whilst I would recommend studying songs as part of your language journey, there are some pros and cons to consider.
Of course studying something you enjoy helps with learning vocabulary – repetition helps to memorise words more effectively.
Knowing popular songs makes a great talking point with friends or language partners.
It provides an insight into culture – language and culture are inevitably intertwined.
This is true in any language but not all songs reflect how language is actually spoken as lyrics tend to be more poetic.
Song lyrics do not always make sense, so take unusual grammar structures and vocabulary with a pinch of salt.
How I study with songs
Here are the steps I follow when I use songs as study materials:
Step 0 – Find a song you like.
This is Step 0 because I’m assuming when you read this post you already have a song in mind to study with!
I generally find ballad style songs to be a good choice because these are more likely to tell a cohesive story than a dance track for example.
There is also an amazing podcast called Japan Top 10 which showcases music currently in the charts as well as episodes dedicated to some of the most popular Japanese artists.
Step 1 – Find the song lyrics.
Google is your friend here: simply search for the artist name and/or song title, then add ‘歌詞’ (かし‘kashi’ meaning lyrics). The website I often use is called Uta-Net (all in Japanese). Just type the artist or song name into the search box and click on the red button to search.
Step 2 – Listen to the song with lyrics.
How much can you understand just by having the lyrics in front of you whilst you listen? You might surprise yourself with what you can pick up at this stage – I often find that seeing the words written down helps you to pick out the words you already know.
Step 3 – Arm yourself with a dictionary/ Japanese friend and get meanings for the vocabulary and grammar structures you are unfamiliar with.
Use this exercise to get a feel for the overall meaning of the song. I wouldn’t worry too much about finding an exact translation into English as this is not always possible.
However, translating can be a fun exercise to check if you have grasped the general meaning of the song. Again Google is really useful for finding a fan page of your favourite artist which may have English translations that you can compare your version to. Can’t find a translation? It may be worth posting your own and making translations a new hobby!
As previously mentioned, there may be kanji usage or grammar that doesn’t necessarily appear in everyday Japanese so make a note of it here. If you have a language notebook make sure you only jot down the most commonly used kanji or correct grammar structures. If you are a fan of flashcards, I would make new flashcards of the most common kanji/ vocabulary that crops up at this stage.
Step 4 – Listen again when you have looked up unfamiliar words and phrases.
How much do you understand now? It should be much more now that you have a better grasp on the song meaning.
Step 5 – Karaoke!
Japan is the home of karaoke and I couldn’t possibly write an article about Japanese songs without mentioning it. If you live in Japan I recommend you take the opportunity to go for an hour and try singing a couple of songs, no matter what your singing ability.
Having to follow the Japanese lyrics onscreen is not easy, but if you go regularly you will really build up your reading speed, especially when it comes to kanji.
Not in Japan? Try searching for a song you like on Youtube and see if you can find a karaoke version/ lyric video to practice with.
Bonus: if you play an instrument you may finding actually playing and singing along to songs helpful too. If you play guitar (or sometimes attempt to play the ukulele like me) you can find chord tabs for popular songs by Googling the song title together with コード (chords). I tend to use a website called Gakki.me.
How do you use songs as part of your language learning? Let me know in the comments!
Today’s recommendation is Orange by Ichigo Takano. I have been meaning to read this for a while and I am so glad that I finally got round to reading it!
The story centres around a girl called Naho who receives a letter from herself 10 years in the future, warning her to make changes to her actions at high school to prevent a tragedy linked to her friendship group from happening in the future. The letter comes with a diary giving certain key dates and events that all help to change the future for the better. By heeding these warnings, Naho not only impacts the future of those around her but also learns a great deal about herself in the process. The manga switches back and forth between the present day Naho and the future version of herself, which is particularly engaging as you get increasingly curious about what has happened in the intervening years.
Orange grabbed me immediately and I couldn’t stop myself from reading it until I got to the end. I think the idea of wanting to go back in time and change things is something that everyone can relate to, especially when looking back to your school days. In addition, the relationships amongst Naho’s friendship group is particularly pleasant to read and this only makes the dramatic aspects of this manga more powerful. Part high school drama, part sci-fi, the blend between the two genres make the manga accessible but a little bit different from other slice of life manga you may have come across previously.
I recommend this manga to Japanese learners because the language used is everyday – no specialist vocabulary required. If you’re familiar with common slang, particularly within the high school setting, then following the characters’ dialogues is pretty straightforward. In terms of language level, I would recommend this for N4-N3 learners.
If you are committed to studying Japanese for the long term, you might be thinking about buying an electronic dictionary, commonly known as 電子辞書 /denshi jisho. I own one of these electronic dictionaries, but for some time I struggled to decide whether I really needed one. Therefore, I thought it might be helpful to put together a post for those who are about to make a similar decision.
A quick note: if you are just starting out with learning Japanese, I suggest sticking to free online dictionary resources that are beginner friendly – I recommend the website Jisho.org, or the Akebi dictionary app.
About Denshi Jisho
If you’ve been to Japan and visited a Japanese electronics store like Yamada Denki, you’ve probably come across rows of 電子辞書 denshi jisho, aimed at students and businessmen learning English and other languages.
As educational gadgets go, these little things can be pretty expensive, with top models costing hundreds of pounds. Two of the main companies that produce these electronic dictionaries are Casio and Sharp.
The denshi jisho I have is a Casio model that I purchased about 5 years ago. I tend to use it alongside free resources depending on what I am studying.
Advantages of having a Denshi Jisho
A lot of Japanese learners reading this might be thinking, “why would I want to have a dictionary when I have a smartphone?”
Here are some of the main advantages of having an electronic dictionary:
Access to multiple dictionaries. Models nowadays contain more dictionaries than you can shake a stick at, with a number of Japanese dictionaries, Japanese-English dictionaries, and other helpful dictionaries dedicated to kanji and kotowaza amongst other things all in one.
Durable. Naturally, electronic dictionaries are not only more portable but will cope better with being thrown into a bag to take to Japanese class, for example, than a paper dictionary.
Quick and easy to search and ‘jump’ between dictionaries. It’s super easy to switch dictionaries (eg. between a Japanese-English and a Japanese-Japanese dictionary) if you want to learn more about a word.
No chance of getting distracted. I find that when using my phone to look things up during a study session, I’m highly likely to check social media.
Certain models have additional features such as handwriting input, touch screens and a SD card slot for access to even more dictionaries.
Obviously, there is some benefit to having lots of dictionaries all wrapped up into one gadget, but in the age of smartphones is an electronic dictionary still a worthy purchase for Japanese learners?
In my opinion, the usefulness of an electronic dictionary does depend on how you study the language.
What to ask yourself before buying an electronic dictionary
Before committing to an investment in an electronic dictionary, it is wise to consider the following three questions:
What Japanese level are you at currently?
As I mentioned at the beginning, the usefulness of a denshi jisho only really comes into its own once you have reached an intermediate level in Japanese, no matter what your language goal.
Buying a Japanese dictionary in Japan, of course, means that you have a whole new gadget to get used to without a manual in English to help you. A lot of features on the model I have are intuitive and fortunately with a bit of playing around it is quite easy to work out how to look things up.
As a gadget aimed at Japanese natives, there are more dictionaries and resources solely in Japanese rather than Japanese-English/ other languages.
Therefore if you are, for example, at a stage where you are looking at moving towards using a Japanese-Japanese dictionary, you will find much better value in purchasing an electronic dictionary.
How intensively do you study Japanese?
Whether I reach for my electronic dictionary or my or my phone depends on what I am looking up. I find the specialised functions of a dictionary the most useful when I am looking up more than one word (eg. Perhaps when I am starting to read a new book).
The backlit screen and easy zoom buttons make reading definitions really simple, and if a word uses a kanji I have not come across before I am able to click on it and find out the stroke order much more easily. In addition, because I can choose from a number of different dictionaries it is easy to cross reference meanings and get more example sentences, whereas on my phone I would have to bring up each dictionary website individually.
A crucial benefit of the model I have is that it has a touchscreen where I can write kanji using the stylus. I have found this much more accurate than the equivalent apps I have on other devices, especially if I am having to look up a lot of unfamiliar kanji.
Even basic models will allow you to jump between different dictionaries easily, so if this is a function you think you would make use of then an electronic dictionary may be for you.
What are your Japanese language goals?
Your value for money for an electronic dictionary is going to depend on what level of proficiency you are aiming for in Japanese.
It is worth noting here that the dictionaries you have on these gadgets will not have more casual or recent buzzwords; for this type of vocabulary, the internet is definitely your best friend.
If having a high level of literacy is part of your language goal – for example studying in a Japanese university, or pursuing a specialist profession in Japan – then an electronic dictionary is more likely to be a wise long-term investment.
Based on the above considerations, the types of people who I think would make the most out of electronic Japanese dictionaries would be those that are already at an intermediate level, who are perhaps in a situation where they are studying towards becoming proficient in Japanese for professional purposes.
This isn’t to say that you should not buy a Japanese dictionary if you do not fit the previous description, but given the expense involved, I think you may want to first consider borrowing a model from a Japanese friend if possible and see how useful you find it. I personally found my model on eBay, so looking online for a cheap electronic dictionary is another good option for keeping the costs down.
However if your budget cannot stretch to buying one just yet, do not worry as there are some great Japanese dictionary apps and websites out there which cost very little or are free, such as Jisho and Akebi mentioned earlier.
When practising reading skills in Japanese, having to tackle a long article with a dictionary can be daunting. Literature in particular can be tricky to understand depending on the author’s writing style. With this in mind, I started looking for really short stories for Japanese practice.
I was concerned that when reading shorter stories you are having to rely much more on inferring certain things from the text which would make them a lot trickier than longer passages which have the space to explain the story in greater depth. However I needn’t have worried too much because the majority of short stories do a great job of setting the scene quickly whilst using language that is too complicated. Having said that, the stories on the websites I mention below may not be the easiest to follow as a complete newbie to Japanese. These stories should be a good place to start for intermediate learners – beginners may be interested in starting with my posts on beginner reading resources instead.
The shortest of short stories are the so called ‘one minute stories’. For us language learners it is unlikely we can read it in one minute but the brevity of the stories still makes it accessible in only a few minutes, making it much easier to fit in a quick study session whilst you having a coffee break or waiting for the bus.
I’ve looked online for some resources with really short stories in Japanese that are much easier to tackle and found a couple of sites that are full of these super short stories:
The first website I can recommend is called Kakuyomu, which has a whole host of 1 minute stories written by amateur Japanese writers. My favourite one of the ones I’ve read so far is called 「赤ん坊の思惑」- it is the definition of a short but sweet story in my opinion.
The second website I want to introduce has lots of 300 character stories which is supposed to be the equivalent of 1 minute’s reading time, all written by an author known as 海見みみみ. I’ve read quite a few of these and really enjoyed them – my recommendations include「留学前夜」,「思い出コレクター」and「魔法女子になりませんか」. I think the stories on this website are on the whole more accessible than Kakuyomu.jp, so don’t be too disheartened if you find the stories on there too difficult – you may have better luck with these stories.
I’ve certainly found it really rewarding reading some of these quick stories and love how easy they are to fit into my day. It’s definitely a good way of boosting your tadoku count!
Are there any stories you’ve particularly enjoyed? Let me know in the comments 🙂
This is a continuation of the list of my favourite free online Japanese reading resources for those who are relatively new to the language. Part 1 is a list of non-fiction resources, but if you find prefer reading Japanese fiction, then this is the article for you!
Those specifically interested in children’s materials should take a look at my post on children’s stories in Japanese which goes into detail on free or very cheap resources you can use.
As with my first post, I have a list of links below with a little bit of an explanation as to why I recommend each one.
This website has a variety of resources for Japanese language learners, but I specifically recommend that beginners take a look at some of the beginner level dialogues (there are also a few essays about Japanese culture in the reading section as well). I’ve included it on this list because even if you’ve just finished with hiragana, you can start reading these useful dialogues.
Both the essays and the dialogues are good for reading practice as each allows you to set the kanji and English translations on or off. As a beginner, you do not always want to jump into reading long articles, and therefore dialogues are a particularly good way of ensuring you are picking up the correct situational words and phrases across various topics.
Wasabi has five stories (a mixture of Japanese classics and traditional Western stories like Jack and the Beanstalk) broken down into a number of lessons that split the story up into shorter sections. Each lesson has Japanese audio (at both slow speed and normal speed), furigana, English translations and a vocabulary list – perfect for a study session!
Wasabi recommends these story lessons at N4 level learners and I think this series offers a good entry point for upper beginners to start learning about famous Japanese stories.
This website has a small collection of classic Japanese children’s stories. These stories are so often referenced in other media that it is always a good idea to read them at least once! All stories on the site come with furigana for all kanji used as well as lists of key vocabulary and phrases.
What is particularly great about the website is that each story has a sentence by sentence English translation. I would say that due to the line by line translations, the English does not always flow naturally. However, this is actually extremely useful for beginners since you can compare grammar and sentence structure between the two languages.
If you cannot get enough of children’s stories, Hukumusume is the website for you. Do not be put off by the fact that this is aimed at Japanese children, because it still remains a good resource for Japanese learners. Each story is accompanied by audio, which makes the stories good for reading and listening practice. What’s more, the website has over 40 Japanese stories that are bilingual (Japanese and English) and are written entirely in hiragana.
The website has a much bigger range of stories in Japanese only, although there is no furigana. Therefore having a plugin like Rikaichan here is recommended for looking up unknown words quickly.
There are children’s stories from around the world on this website so you may prefer to start with a story from the 世界の昔話 section – here you can select stories from a country of your choice and focus on stories you are already familiar with.
Satori Reader is from the people behind Human Japanese and is a great resource for those wanting to read a range of materials in Japanese. The website has a number of different story series, as well as dialogues for different situations.
Each series has a number of stories within them, which have difficulty ratings. The articles on the site are great for beginners and above because the range of features means that it is possible to follow any of the stories.
Once you select a story, you will be able to see the text and click on any word or phrase for an English translation (including conjugated verbs). As you can see from the image below, options to toggle kanji, furigana and spaces between words on or off are available. There is also audio for the article as a whole and for each sentence – ideal for shadowing.
The translations and notes provided are extremely useful as they are both specific to the words you highlight, and the context of the sentence or phrase it is used in. You can comment on the article when any questions you may have, and one of the team will provide an explanation.
When you sign up for an account, you can access some of these stories for free, although a paid subscription is required to read all of the website’s content. Satori Reader now has an app for iOS and Android which looks great for reading practice on the go.
Aozora is a directory of Japanese literature that is now out of copyright. You can find a huge variety of literature from some of the most famous writers of the last century, including Osamu Dazai and Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Since they are out of copyright, you are free to download the stories and convert them so that you can read them on your Kindle – this website already has Aozora stories in an ebook-friendly MOBI format.
The website is entirely in Japanese so I would recommend that beginners look up the kanji for a specific author using the search box, and then choose a story that way. As you might expect, Japanese from the early 20th century is different from how it is today, so choosing the right author and the right story can be tricky.
Are you interested in listening to news articles whilst learning Japanese but don’t have time to tackle a full length piece? Then News in Slow Japanese may be the podcast for you.
Every week or so Sakura produces a short podcast of 2-3 minutes long covering something that has been in the news recently. Each episode of the podcast has this news piece read at a slower pace to allow learners to pick up on words and grammar points they may not have caught at native speed. There is also a version of the same article being read at native speed to test your listening skills.
I had been alternating between the slower speed and native speed episodes to see what I could pick up, and then looking up the words I didn’t know to add to my language journal. Little did I know that the website for News In Slow Japanese is a wonderful resource in itself – here you can find printable pages for each episode with transcripts in kana and romaji as well as ready made vocabulary lists! It is also worth mentioning that the website allows you to sort by topic, so if there is a topic you would like to study in more depth you can choose to focus on that only, which is useful no matter your Japanese language level is.
These podcasts and accompanying website have clearly been decided with language learners in mind. I think this resource is a good way of dipping your toe into newspaper style articles and seeing how much you can pick up: at only a couple of minutes long it is easy to listen to an episode a day without feeling too overwhelming. Sakura herself recommends using the podcasts to shadow a native speaker’s pronounciation, rhythm and intonation, which is certainly a great way of making use of the podcast in addition to testing your listening skills. Some of the earlier episodes have YouTube videos with the transcript, which some learners may find helpful too.
Everything I have mentioned above is free, although Sakura offers a monthly subscription service that gives you access to additional study materials for reading comprehension, vocabulary tests and shadowing.
I think this resource is best more intermediate and above learners, but I think the short form of the episodes makes the podcast accessible to advanced beginners too.
Ever had a burning question for a speaker of your target language but no one around to ask? HiNative is the app for you! This app has been around for some time but before trying it out myself I was quite skeptical, but I am a definite convert.
Why is the app recommended?
When you create an account you can specify what languages you are learning and which languages/ countries you are already familiar with. Based on these choices you can see questions and answers on your language pairs which you can then contribute to. You can also record audio and ask native speakers to critique your pronunciation!
It is particularly good for those who are learning languages where local native speakers are in short supply, which makes it a good choice for Japanese learners. There can be times whilst you are learning a language when friends who speak the target language are less likely to correct you on errors. Therefore getting a complete stranger’s input on whether something sounds natural or not is always a good idea. It is certainly true that when learning Japanese, the best thing is to ask a native about issues such as word usage; no matter how good your dictionary may be, it cannot always capture the unique nuances that certain words may have.
I thought that HiNative was solely about language questions, but it can be a great way of asking questions about the culture(s) you are interested in. I saw lots of questions about music and TV recommendations, food culture, sports, etiquette, travel which sparked some interesting discussions. Ultimately as a language learning app, it attracts people enthusiastic about other languages and cultures and so people do their best to be encouraging. This kind of supportive community is just the thing you need to keep yourself motivated during your language learning journey. Even if you only have 5 minutes while waiting for the bus or brewing a cup of tea, you can be doing something productive by using this app.
You can find the HiNative app on the App Store or Google Play store for free (though there is a premium version available) – find further details on the official website.