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.

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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.

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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 🙂

On Reaching Your Language Goals

So we have reached July, and hopefully I am not the only one wondering where the first 6 months have gone. Now is as good time as any to look back on the first half of the year and review any targets you have set for the year.

Do you remember what your new year’s resolutions were?

Have you not got round to setting them yet?

The problem with new year’s resolutions is that they are often too big and too vague to actually achieve. I suggest that if you are reviewing your resolutions or setting goals for the first time this year to do two things:

1) Break them down into smaller, more concrete goals

2) Work out what steps you need to take to achieve them

For example, if your goal this year was to learn Japanese, I want you to think about what it is about Japanese you want to master. Do you want to be able to understand an anime, travel to Japan, read a Murakami novel in the original language or something completely different? It is important to think about this because the nature of your goal will ultimately determine your approach to learning Japanese. All of the previous examples would require would require a different emphasis on listening, speaking and reading respectively and reflect varying levels of proficiency in Japanese.

Now that you have thought about what it is you want to achieve, think about the timescale you want to set to achieve these goals. Some goals will have a more clear cut end date – If your trip to Japan is to see the cherry blossoms in Kyoto then you probably have until next March to study, and if you’re sitting the JLPT then you would be looking towards the next sitting of the test in your country.

If an end date for your goals is not clear cut, then I suggest looking at a monthly check in. If your goals are language related, keeping a journal of what you have learnt will make it easy to review what you have learnt at the end of the month and to set targets for the next month. This is especially good where your target is a longer term goal (like learning to read Murakami).

With your smaller goals in mind, you next need to think about how you are actually going to achieve it. This is often the trickiest part, but is also the step that will ensure you keep on track. In regards to learning Japanese, this would relate to which resources are you going to use to learn basic phrases, kana, kanji and grammar.

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Fortunately even lazing around on Netflix can count as language learning 😉

The great thing about language learning in general is that there is a great range of activites that double up as language study. However the type of language learning activities you focus on need to be targeted towards your goal – learning kanji isn’t going to be necessary for a short trip to Japan but is essential for understanding Murakami! Do you have a Japanese friend that you can practise with? Is there a Japanese class in your area you can attend? Are there beginners textbooks you can lend from a local library? This may feel like an expensive endeavour but there are lots of free resources out there – most of the resources I recommend on this blog are free.

Finally consider when in your day you will realistically be able to fit in language learning activities and work around this. Make it your aim to fit in at least one activity a day, because consistency reaps the most rewards with language learning. I find that bullet journals or to do list apps such as Bright Todo are useful for keeping yourself accountable for maintaining, although setting daily reminders in your preferred calendar app works just as well.

If you can set yourself small goals and put together a realistic plan of how to go about achieving them, the world really is your oyster when it comes to learning Japanese, or any language for that matter. I’ll leave you with one last quote which I think ties in really well with today’s topic:

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

A Guide to the many “why” words in Japanese: どうして, なぜ and なんで

Japanese is so vocabulary rich that knowing when to use similar words and phrases can be a bit of a nightmare for language learners. どうして, なぜ and なんで can all be translated as ‘why’ in English but it is the level of formality which largely differentiates the three words.

なぜ Naze

なぜ orginated from the older term なにゆえ. It is the most formal of the three and is the word most often used in the written language rather than in speech.

なぜ日本語を勉強していますか?     naze nihongo wo benkyou shiteimasuka?

Why are you studying Japanese?

なぜ昨日のパーティーに来なかったの? naze pa-ti- ni konakatta no?

Why didn’t you come to the party yesterday?

 

どうして Doushite

In a lot of cases, どうして can be used interchangeably with なぜ, but is considered to feel less formal. The word is a contraction of an older term どのようにして, and therefore can sometimes be used to mean ‘how’ rather than why’ in English.

どうして知っているの? doushite shitteiru no?

How did you know?

どうして昨日そんなに早く帰ってしまったの? doushite kinou sonna ni hayaku kaette shimatta no?

Why did you go home so early yesterday?

 

なんで Nande

なんで is the most informal of the three terms. As you can imagine, this word tends to be used more by young people than other age groups.

なんで私が? nande watashi ga?

Why me?

なんでそんな所に行ったの? nande sonna tokoro ni itta no?

Why did you go to that place?

どうして is probably the word you’ll hear used the most and is therefore your safest bet for everyday use, but make sure to choose wisely depending on what setting you are in.

5 Quick Tips for Nailing the JLPT Listening Test

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Unfortunately, you don’t get these snazzy headphones in the real exam

So we are in the final days before the July sitting of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). The listening test is, of course, a big part of this, which can be tricky but at the same time is an area you can score pretty highly with a bit of practice.

Even if you haven’t spent much time preparing for this part of the JLPT so far, here are my last-minute tips for tackling the listening test:

 

1) Practice timings by doing a mock test in exam conditions

The exam has different types of listening questions, and depending on the level you are taking the composition of questions will be slightly different. It is important to practice the test under timed conditions to give yourself an idea of how long you have for each of the question types when sitting the real thing.

At the beginning of the test the questions are more straightforward, but at the same time, the thinking time for each question is pretty short. You do not want to be caught out early on in the exam where it is relatively easier to pick up marks.

You can find example question papers for each JLPT with answers and the transcript on the official website.

 

2) Listening to anything and everything in Japanese just before the exam

Especially when preparing for a language exam outside of Japan, you want to go into the test room having set your brain to Japanese mode.

 

3) Maximise use of the reading time by making notes

By preparing yourself for what you might hear, you can use the actual exam time for listening (instead of stressing about what is being asked of you in each section of the test).

The questions are written out in Japanese on the question paper, so use the reading time to make notes (if you have practised the exam previously, you shouldn’t have to spend too much time working out what each question is asking of you).

  • Highlight words on the question paper that give you an idea as to what type of information you are looking for, often indicated by question words like どこ, なに, どんな, いつ, どうして.
  • Make a mental note of what the differences are between the potential answers in the multiple choice sections, and for questions accompanied by a picture you could jot down the appropriate Japanese vocab for key items in the picture.

 

4) For the longer conversation questions, keep track of key points in the dialogue signposting the flow of the conversation

Listen out for conjunctions during dialogues. Words like でも, しかし, それから and その後 may precede essential information for answering the question correctly.

When I sat the N2 exam this was really helpful to bear in mind, as the conversations can lead you towards one answer and then indicate the correct answer mid-way or at the end of the dialogue.

 

5) Writing something is better than nothing!

These exams do require concentration for a long period of time, and if like me it has been a while since you last sat an exam the whole day can be pretty daunting. This may seem obvious, but if you find that you’ve missed a key bit of information on one question, put something down on the answer paper and move on to the next question.

 

If you are reading this and about to sit your exam, good luck!

More importantly, don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back once it is all over – whatever the outcome of the exam is, getting to the stage of sitting the exam at any level is an accomplishment.

Never heard of the JLPT? Check out my post about the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.

Have you sat the JLPT exam before? How did you find the listening portion? Let me know in the comments!

‘Appy Mondays: Mondo App Review

Welcome to my series of app reviews relating to Japanese language study. Today’s app review is of the Japanese reading app Mondo.

Have you been studying Japanese for a while but scared of reading articles in Japanese? Looking for a simple Japanese news aggregate app with dictionary lookup functionality? Then Mondo is definitely the app for you!

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I have had this app installed for some time, but after playing around with the app to understand more fully all of the features it has I can definitely recommend this to intermediate learners looking to improve their article reading skills.

 

How Mondo works

I have reviewed other reading apps before as part of this series, but what sets this app aside from these others is that it offers a better reading experience for learners by including dictionary lookup and a flashcard feature amongst other things. I’ve outlined some of the app’s main features below:

 

  • Article reading. All articles have a word lookup function when you highlight a word or phrase and includes a recording of its pronunciation by a native speaker. You can toggle furigana on or off, and some articles have links to the English translation to check your understanding of the Japanese text.
  • Vocabulary lists. Words you come across in articles can be bookmarked, which then can be viewed later and added to a vocabulary list. There are also preset lists, with lists such as all levels of the JLPT, Joyo (general use) kanji and business-related language. You can then test yourself on this vocabulary in the form of electronic flashcards, Anki style. My only gripe with this is that with the preset lists testing from English to Japanese, the English terms can be so obtuse at times that coming up with the correct Japanese term can seem nearly impossible sometimes.

 

 

  • Handshake is a feature you can use to find Japanese language learning partners. You can choose a partner by swiping right on the people you are interested in chatting with – if you get a mutual handshake, you’ve just found a language exchange partner! The obvious similarities to Tinder here have put me off trying this feature out, but it could be a good alternative to a dedicated app like Hello Talk.
  • Study log. When reading articles, the app measures how long it takes you to read the article, and how long you have spent reading in total. It also measures Characters per Minute (CPM) which is used as a benchmark for what level the app considers your language learning level to be.

 

My thoughts on Mondo

I think that the above features packed into one app for free represents a really good deal. It is worth mentioning that there is a premium version of the app, which gives you access to audio recordings of each article (the free version lets you listen to one article every fortnight) as well as short dialogues by native speakers and costs 480 yen per month.

For 1800 yen per month, the premium membership also grants you access to Japanese language teachers who are there to help you out with any Japanese related questions you may have. Given the prices, I am not sure if the premium membership represents good value for money, but as a free app, I am impressed by its current offering.

If you are interested in checking the app out, it is available in the Apple store and Google Play storeYou can also find out more about the app on the official website.

 

PS. If you are on the lookout for a similar type of reading app, check my previous reviews:

‘Appy Mondays – TangoRisto

‘Appy Mondays – News Easy Japanese

‘Appy Mondays -NHK News Reader

 

Have you tried this app out? Are you aware of a better alternative? Let me know in the comments!

Tadoku – reading your way to Japanese fluency?

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Reading in Japanese is crucial for increasing your language skills. Especially if you are looking to study towards the JLPT, reading in Japanese on a regular basis is an essential habit. Reading speed for the JLPT becomes even more important at the higher levels, where being able to read quickly and pick out the key points is necessary to score highly.

Therefore as an avid reader, I was immediately drawn to the concept of tadoku (多読) when I happened across it some months ago. Developed in Japan as a way of improving English skills for non-native speakers, tadoku focuses on reading as much material as possible. Importantly, you read without getting hung up on unfamiliar words and phrases.

There are four golden rules for tadoku:

  1. Read something at your level
  2. Don’t use your dictionary
  3. Skip over the words and phrases you don’t understand
  4. If something is too difficult, stop reading it and read something else

 

Why is tadoku effective?

  • After a while, the context of the text you are reading helps to fill in the meaning of the words. Often we want to look up a word in a dictionary, and then work out what it means by reading the next sentence or two. Generally, 80% comprehension is enough to understand the remaining 20% through context.
  • You get a feel for what words and phrases appear more naturally in everyday language. Similarly, you learn common vocabulary when you read extensively in a specialist field.
  • Most importantly though, tadoku is supposed to be fun because you only read texts that you are motivated to finish.

Initially, I was skeptical of the idea of not needing to look up every word I did not know. However I decided to choose materials that were easy enough for me to follow but also things that I was genuinely interested in reading. That shift in thinking was enough for me to want to give tadoku a try.

Armed with a couple of really useful reading apps, I started looking for things to read. I mostly read novels, but I also enjoy reading manga from time to time. I often write about easy manga recommendations on the blog too.

Finding Japanese reading materials 

Free resources

My first thought was to look for reading materials where I already knew the story. Many people prefer translations of stories they are familiar with in English. With this in mind, I picked up translations of ‘Little Women’ and ‘The Great Gatsby’ from Aozora Bunko.

I recommend Aozora Bunko if you are looking for stories in Japanese to read for free, and I will be writing a follow-up post on how to make the most of this amazing resource. As great as Aozora Bunko is, the website is more than a little dauting for Japanese learners. I have written a few Author Spotlight posts which tend to feature authors whose works are on Aozora and are appropriate for Japanese learners.

However what has been most effective for me is to read books relating to films/ dramas I have watched. Examples of texts I have read include Nodame Cantabile, 1 Litre of Tears and A Silent Voice.

I’ve done a few posts on free online resources for Japanese reading which might help:

Buying physical books

The magic of tadoku is that you can read anything you want to read. If you want to read Harry Potter in Japanese, go ahead and order it!

Being in Japan certainly helps keep the costs down as second hand books can be bought online on from Book-Off very cheaply.

If you are outside of Japan like me, it’s a little bit more difficult. In terms of physical books, I normally look out for books on eBay or Amazon in my home country where possible for used books.

I know that CDJapanAmazon.jp and honto.jp ship internationally, although due to fairly high shipping costs it is advisable to buy in bulk to get the best value for money.

Buying digital books/ eBooks

If you prefer digital books, you have two book reading websites with companion apps at your disposal: ebookJapan and Bookwalker. I personally use both and can vouch for the convenience of being able to buy digital books and manga from outside Japan. You can pay with international cards on both websites, and with Bookwalker you can navigate both the website and the app in English.

If you are based in Japan, I would look into getting a Kindle ebook reader to read Japanese books digitally. I bought a Kobo reader in Japan and can buy ebooks for the device via the Rakuten Kobo store (I was living in Japan at the time, so I am not sure if this would work for others who are not in the country).

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My Kobo E-reader

The best thing about these two websites above is that you can try before you buy, by making use of the 立ち読み button. This allows you to read a sample of the book. I definitely recommend spending some time doing this before buying anything. You can save yourself a bit of money by first assessing the registers and the style of language used to see if it is appropriate for your language level.

Keep an eye out for my Manga Recommendation posts which may give you ideas of what you might like to read depending on your current level.

 

Tracking your reading in Japanese

If you are using an ebook reader, you will already be able to check your stats on how much you have read. However, if you are reading physical books, you may find using a website like Bookmeter helpful.

Bookmeter is basically the Japanese version of Goodreads. You can put together lists of books you are reading or would like to read and post reviews. As you register more books, you get recommendations on books based on what you have already read and enjoyed. The website is all in Japanese so I would recommend this website more for intermediate to advanced learners.

There are tadoku contests if you are planning on trying to read extensively and would like to compete against others.

 

How have I been getting on so far?

Initially my focus was to try and read as far as I could get on my train journey to work. At first, it was quite difficult, having started a new book (死神の制度 by Isaka Kotaro) and progress was slow. After a few days, I had sped up considerably. I felt like I was enjoying the book for its content rather than stressing about reading a book in Japanese!

For me, the best thing about trying this method has been to remind me of how far I’ve come with my language learning. Tadoku also gets you to enjoy native language materials without getting bogged down in the finer details of the language. After all, that’s why I started studying Japanese in the first place! My main goal in the short term is to keep reading regularly. Writing about what books I have read on the blog is also a good way to stay accountable.

Have you tried the tadoku technique? Are there any texts or resources you have found particularly useful for boosting your reading skills? Let me know in the comments.

Japanese Onomatopoeia: Giongo, Giseigo and Gitaigo

Both spoken and written forms of Japanese contain lots of onomatopoeia. Despite this, few textbooks spend much time explaining Japanese onomatopoeia in detail. I highly advise learners dedicate time to study this fascinating part of the language.

Using onomatopoeia helps to vividly describe an action or state. Take the verb 笑(わら)う warau for example; this can mean to smile or laugh depending on the context. By adding different onomatopoeia we can change the nuance of this verb:

ニヤニヤ笑う niyaniya warau to grin, smirk

クスクス笑うkusukusu warau to giggle, chuckle

ゲラゲラ笑う geragera warau to burst into laughter, crack up

We Japanese learners can often guess the meaning of some words in context. However Japanese people tend to use onomatopoeia in a much broader sense.

Types of Onomatopoeia in Japanese

There are three Japanese terms that fall under the umbrella of onomatopoeia (オノマトペ):

擬音語/ぎおんご Giongo

Giongo mimics a sound – think of ‘bang’ or ‘crash’ in English

ざあざあ (zaazaa) = sound of pouring rain/ rushing water

雨がざあざあ降っている ame ga zaazaa futteiru

The rain is pouring down

がちゃん (gachan) = slamming or clanging sound

花瓶が床に落ちてがちゃんと割った kabin ga yuka ni ochite gachan to watta

The vase crashed to the floor

 

擬声語/ぎせいご Giseigo

Giseigo mimics a voice (usually of an animal) – think of ‘woof’ or ‘meow’ in English

わんわん (wanwan) = a dog’s bark

犬がわんわん吠えている  inu ga wanwan hoeteiru

The dog is barking

おぎゃー(ogya) = a baby’s cry

赤ちゃんがおぎゃーおぎゃーと泣く akachan ga ogyaa ogyaa to naku

The baby is crying

 

擬態語/ぎたいご Gitaigo

Japanese uses gitaigo to mimic a state. This is pretty uncommon in English; there are terms like higgledy-piggledy (meaning ‘in a messy state’) which have a similar feel.

We can break gitaigo into three categories:

Firstly, words that indicate a state or condition, e.g.

きらきら (kirakira) = sparkling, glittering

星が空にきらきらと輝いている hoshi ga sora ni kirakira to kagayaiteiru

The stars are sparkling in the sky

つるつる (tsurutsuru) = smooth

ラーメンをつるつるとすする raamen wo tsurutsuru to susuru

I slurp the noodles

Secondly, words that describe how an action is being performed, e.g.

ぺらぺら (perapera) = fluently; thin/ flimsy (paper/ cloth)

姉は5年間スペインに住んでいましたので、スペイン語がぺらぺら

My older sister is fluent in Spanish because she lived in Spain for 5 years

のろのろ (noronoro) = slow, sluggish

彼は亀のようにのろのろ歩いた kare wa kame no you ni noronoro aruita

He walked as slow as a snail

Lastly, words that indicate feelings or emotions, e.g.

イライラする (iraira suru) = to be irritated

私は食事をしないとイライラする人だ watashi wa shokuji wo shinai to iraira suru hito da

I’m a person who gets annoyed when I haven’t eaten

びっくりする (bikkuri suru) = to be surprised

そのニュースを聞いてびっくりした sono nyuusu wo kiite bikkuri shita

I was shocked to hear the news

Slightly changing the sound of the onomatopoeia can also add further nuance, for example:

ドアをトントン叩(たた)く doa wo tonton tataku to knock/ tap on the door

ドアをドンドン叩(たた)く doa wo dondon tataku    to bang on the door

 

How I study Japanese onomatopoeia

If I come across a new onomatopoeia, I look it up in a dictionary or ask a friend to confirm the meaning. Then I make a note of it in my vocabulary notebook. When I do this, I always write it down as a phrase or in the context of a sentence rather than the word on its own.

Since these words are often hard to translate into English, having example sentences or phrases are essential. Studying them in the context of sentences will be helpful for not only memorising onomatopoeia but also using them naturally in conversation. This is especially true for gitaigo which is less intuitive to English speakers.

Onomatopoeia is very frequently used with specific verbs. Others are formed into verbs by adding する, so remembering the onomatopoeia as a verb means you will know the meaning of it even when it appears without する.

わんわん –> わんわん吠(ほ)える wanwan hoeru = to bark

にこにこ –> にこにこ笑( わら)う nikoniko warau = to smile

You’ll notice in some of the examples in this post that some onomatopoeia can take the particle と, often when with a verb. There isn’t a specific rule on when to use . My recoomendation is to make a note of which words use it in your example sentences or phrases.

Resources for learning Japanese onomatopoeia

Referring to a decent Japanese-English dictionary is fine for giving an idea of a rough meaning, although you may find that there is not a direct English translation.

I’ve listed a few sites below that might help your studies:

OnomatoProject

Onomatoproject page screenshot

There is a great website called the Onomato Project which lets you practice onomatopoeia in the form of online quizzes. Each word is accompanied by illustrations and example sentences. If you use Anki, you might find the shared Onomatoproject Anki deck a better choice for studying on the go.

Sura Sura

However, if you are an intermediate learner, then I fully recommend going straight to a Japanese resource called Sura Sura, which is an online Japanese onomatopoeia dictionary. It may not have every word you are looking for, but for the onomatopoeia that is on the site, you will find a simple explanation in Japanese, accompanied by a photo which helps illuminate the meaning.

sura sura japanese onomatopoeia screenshot

Each onomatopoeia also has example sentences and notes on things like the etymology of the word and how it differs to others with a similar meaning. Best of all, each page has a link to Twitter showing tweets from native speakers using the word you are looking up.

National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics (NINJAL) website

Screenshot showing japanese onomatopoeia

I also recommend the マンガを読もう section of the NINJAL website above which has some extremely helpful comic illustrations.

The above websites show just how useful it is to have visual context for learning how onomatopoeia is actually used. Therefore pictures, manga, and TV are especially good places to see these words in context. Sometimes I will draw a picture (despite being terrible at drawing!) alongside new onomatopoeia in my notebook.

PS. Think you’re pretty good with onomatopoeia in Japanese? Check out this video below and see if you can spot them all!

Do you have any special tricks for learning onomatopoeia? Let me know in the comments!

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