Recommendations

Free Reading Resources for Japanese Beginners: Part 1

There is no shortage of Japanese learning resources online, but finding reading materials for Japanese beginners outside of textbooks can be really difficult. This is something I really struggled with when I had just started to learn Japanese, and found pretty much all native materials to be far too complicated – it was incredibly demotivating.

For that reason, I really wanted to put a list of resources together that is aimed at those who have recently begun learning the language. Here are a few of my favourites that are appropriate for JLPT level N5-N4 learners.

**Note** This is a two-part post, with this post focusing on non-fiction articles. If you are looking for articles that are a bit different to the above then please check out Part 2 in the series, which are mostly resources for Japanese fiction.

Similarly, if studying with children’s books appeals to you, then I have written a whole post dedicated to reading and listening resources for children’s stories.

 

Watanoc

This is a free web news magazine with short and interesting articles aimed at Japanese beginners up to intermediate level (corresponding to between JLPT N5 and N3). You can filter by JLPT level, or narrow down articles by topic if you prefer. If you click on certain pieces of vocabulary you can check the kanji reading and English meaning.

Image of Watanoc website

Translations of each article are available in English, Vietnamese or Chinese – just hover over the name of the language under each Japanese sentence to read its translation. The articles have a lot of pictures and Japanese audio which all in all makes it a great place to read interesting stories about Japan.

 

Hirogaru

Like Watanoc, this is a website run by the Japan Foundation with short articles on Japanese culture in simple Japanese. It is an excellent site for practicing your reading comprehension as you have to option to add furigana, hide the vocabulary lists and there is also a mini quiz at the end of each article to test your understanding.

Image from Hirogaru website

All articles have pictures and short video clips as well as the Japanese audio which provides a fun multimedia experience. The articles are grouped by topic, so you can easily focus on something that you are interested in.

There is no indication of the level of language used, but I believe that the articles are very accessible to N5 and N4 level learners. If you do get stuck, you can easily switch the website language from Japanese to English by clicking the button in the top-right corner.

 

NHK News Web Easy

If you’ve taken a look at a newspaper article in Japanese, you’ll know that it is often full of tricky formal grammar structures and vocabulary. Fortunately, NHK News Web Easy is a website that has recent news stories written in simple Japanese.

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The articles are an ideal length for the beginner and get you used to the style of newspaper articles in Japanese. Each article allows you to read the news articles with furigana readings (or not if you fancy a bigger challenge!). I like that the names mentioned in the articles are highlighted in different colours depending on whether it is the name or a person or place.

As you can see from the image, you are able to watch a short video and listen to an audio version of the article. NHK News Web Easy is a highly recommended resource which is ideal for practicing your reading and listening skills, as well as to keep up with current events in Japan.

 

Coscom

This website has been around for a fairly long time, but still remains a really good resource for Japanese learners. There are a lot of learning materials on the Coscom website, but I particularly recommend the Weather Forecast and the Headline News articles for upper beginners (in terms of vocabulary and grammar I’d estimate this to be around N4 level) on the left side-bar.

Image of news article from Coscom

Both pages are comprehensive in content as they have the option to view the articles in romaji, kana or kanji and also include Japanese audio. Below each article, you can see a sentence by sentence breakdown of the article where you can see the vocabulary and grammar points used.

Unfortunately, only the most recent articles are available for free but it is worth checking the website every week or so for new material to read.

 

Matcha Magazine – やさしい日本語 version

The English language Matcha Magazine website is a Japanese travel magazine full of recommendations for places to visit and things to do in Japan.

I recently discovered that if you click on the languages drop-down menu, you can change the website language from English to やさしい日本語. This allows you to read the same types of travel articles but in simpler Japanese compared to the Japanese version of the website. I would estimate the difficulty of the language used to be appropriate for upper beginner to intermediate learners (JLPT N4 and above).

Image from Matcha Magazine (Yasashii Japanese version)

Each article comes with furigana and English for some of the katakana words (this is pretty useful as some words can be incredibly difficult to work out!). This website is a bit more difficult to study with since it does not have English meanings for vocabulary on the same page. However, you can always refer to the English language versions of each article to check your comprehension.

I recommend using a reading assistant such as Rikaichan(Firefox)/ Rikaikun (Google Chrome) or japanese.io to quickly look up English meanings.

 

Yahoo Kids Japan

When I was at upper beginner level, I was always searching for kids’ versions of newspaper articles in Japanese online. Unfortunately a lot of this material is behind a paywall for major newspapers in Japan, but Yahoo does still have some articles for free on their website.

Image of Yahoo Kids Japan homepage

Since these articles are aimed at Japanese children, they do not come with furigana readings but are short and written using simpler grammar. As with Matcha JP, using a reading assistant tool will help make reading sessions a breeze. I recommend this website for those who are JLPT N4 and above.

 

So that is my list so far – I am always updating and adding to this list as I discover new resources. I also (try to) keep my Japanese Masterpost page updated with reading resources.

With these being online resources (and so subject to disappear from websites suddenly), I usually save a copy of the articles I read for offline viewing using a tool such as Pocket or Evernote. I used to print out a lot of articles so that I could scribble down notes relating to the grammar and vocabulary used.

 

What do you like to read in Japanese? Have any recommendations? Let me know in the comments!

‘Appy Mondays: HiNative

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.

download
It helps that the app’s mascot is super adorable!

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.

Manga Recommendation: 日本人の知らない日本語

Today’s recommendation is manga series called 日本人の知らない日本語 (nihonjin no shiranai nihongo) by Nagiko Umino. Despite the meaning of the title (something along the lines of ‘The Japanese langauge that Japanese people don’t know’), this is a highly recommended manga for students of Japanese.

The manga is written from the perspective of Nagiko, who works as a Japanese language teacher. The manga focuses on her experiences of teaching international students Japanese and what she learns about her native language in the process.

You are bound to find at least one story that you can relate to as a Japanese language learner. It is often funny, but manages to always be sympathetic to the plight of the international students whilst being incredibly informative.

Each chapter normally begins with one of the international students posing a question about an aspect of the language. Nagako often responds by explaining the history behind this aspect of the language as part of her answer. For example, there is a chapter about the origin of hiragana and katakana which I found particularly fascinating.

Hentaigana-ha1.svg
It turns out that hentaigana like the above were in use until the 20th century!

Having this historical background really helps to flesh out how the language has developed into its current state and help you remember the Japanese correctly.

At the end of each story there is a mini essay about the topic covered, normally emphasising to the Japanese audience this is aimed at what struggles learners of Japanese often have and why. There are also mini quizzes testing you on an aspect of the language covered in the chapter (with answers). From a learners perspective this is a good way of checking that you’ve understood what was covered.

In terms of language level I think JLPT N3 level and above learners will get the most out of all of the content (including the mini essays at the end of each chapter). N4 level learners however may be able to follow a lot of the dialogue with help from a dictionary. Reading this manga may just help you avoid the pitfalls that a lot of us fall into on our language journeys!

If you find the manga a bit too tricky, there is a drama adaptation that aired in 2010 which is also worth a watch. If you do watch the drama, you might want to check out the drama’s official website which recaps the main grammar points and vocab from each episode.

Have you read this manga or watched the drama? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

 

Podcast recommendation: Bilingual News Podcast

I love podcasts, as I find them a great way of brushing up on my Japanese when I’m on the go (I’ve written about why I like them so much in a separate post). Fortunately I have found a new podcast which is great for my work commute: Bilingual News Podcast.

This weekly bilingual news podcast is hosted by Michael and Mami. Each episode is usually at least an hour in duration but the nature of the podcast makes it easy to listen for 15 minutes or so at a time.

Why do I recommend it?

Each podcast covers a number of current news stories from around the world which are usually read out by Mami in Japanese, then Michael follows up with the story in English. There is then a discussion in both languages around the topic.

I really like the podcast as you get to hear the article in Japanese first, then the English translation which allows you to check your comprehension before they delve into the given topic. Whilst the article summary uses the type of vocabulary and grammar constructions you would find in a written article, the discussion that follows is always in more everyday Japanese. Mami normally sticks to speaking Japanese and Michael English, although they do both switch between the two languages.

There is an accompanying app which has transcripts for each podcast along with other useful functions such as the ability to make notes, vocab lists, use the dictionary functions and access essays. Whilst the transcripts for the first 3 episodes are free, This has a subscription fee of 240 yen a month. I have not tried it myself but as a relatively cheap subscription it sounds like good value for money.

Newspapers can be especially tricky but I think listening to this podcast, especially while reading the transcripts will really help you get used to the nature of the type of language that gets used in newspapers and how it differs to standard spoken language. I think if you already enjoy news digest podcasts and are looking to listen to something similar but in Japanese this is a good start. I would also recommend this if you are preparing for the JLPT, or if reading a newspaper in Japanese is something you would like to work towards.

Check out the podcast from the official website, and if you do enjoy the podcast make sure to show the team some love on Twitter or other social media 🙂

Manga recommendation for Japanese learners: Usagi Drop うさぎドロップ

Today’s manga recommendation for Japanese learners is Usagi Drop (うさぎドロップ), a manga series created by Yumi Unita.

Quick Facts

Author: Yumi Unita (宇仁田ゆみ)

Genre: Slice of life

No. of volumes: 10

Recommended for: JLPT N3/ intermediate

Furigana: No

Anime/ drama/ film adaptations?: Yes, anime and live-action film adaptations

 

Usagi drop japanese manga cover
Source: ebookJapan website

 

Plot Overview

The main character is Daikichi Kawachi who, despite not knowing anything about raising a child, becomes the guardian of a 6-year-old girl called Rin. Rin is the illegitimate child of Daikichi’s late grandfather, who he meets for the first time at his grandfather’s funeral. Seeing that his other relatives want nothing to do with Rin, he takes it upon himself to look after her rather than have her adopted.

 

Why do I recommend Usagi drop for Japanese learners?

I really like this manga as it is packed with both funny and touching moments, and it is particularly heartwarming to watch the relationship between Daikichi and Rin develop. It is also interesting to see how Daikichi copes as a single parent, having to learn (with a bit of help from his friends) what it takes to be responsible for another person.

Not only has the manga has also been serialised in English but there is also an anime and a live action film that was released in 2011, so if you enjoy the story it may be worth checking these out as well.

 

Recommended Japanese language level

Whilst there is no furigana, the manga is not too difficult in terms of vocabulary used. Being a slice of life manga, the vocabulary is mostly related to everyday activities. It does, however, require knowledge of more casual speech, for example:

そっスカ? = そうですか?

終わんの早エなー = 終わるのが早いな

Aside from the above, I think it is an accessible manga for intermediate or JLPT N3 level learners.

You can read a sample of this manga on the EbookJapan website by clicking the blue ‘無料立ち読み’ button.

 

If you do try Usagi Drop (or any of my other manga recommendations), please let me know how you get on the comments.

I am always on the hunt for beginner friendly manga, so if you have any suggestions please let me know!

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