Need more Japanese reading practice? Trying to understand newspaper-level Japanese? For the most part, it requires a lot of immersive reading. But there are some tools you can use to help give you a leg up. In this post, I’ll talk about a book series I recently found that helps Japanese learners with one of the country’s most iconic newspaper columns.
Japanese reading practice and N1-level Japanese
It’s difficult to bring your Japanese to the level where you can immerse yourself in native content. But it’s also rewarding knowing you can abandon learning materials and consume media you enjoy. After all, that’s why many of us started studying Japanese in the first place.
But it’s not so simple as saying, “get more Japanese reading practice.” That’s especially true with works such as personal essays and newspaper op-eds. Depending on the writer, such pieces can be written more elegantly or formally than standard news coverage. Many tend to use kanji compounds and rare idioms you’re not likely to hear in daily conversation.
In other words, combined with Japanese being a high-context language that often omits topic and subject, such texts will likely occasionally have sentences that leave you scratching your head. Even after reading Japanese every day for years, I still sometimes run into some constructions that give me pause.
I’ve covered some techniques you can use to bridge this gap, including sentence mining and the Listening-Reading method. You can also work through difficult texts one-on-one with an online Japanese language learning teacher.
Japanese reading practice: Using side-by-side readers
Another trick is to read books that have English translations. This can include either English books translated into Japanese or vice versa.
Usually, this approach requires having both books on hand – which is cumbersome. Another option is to buy side-by-side translations. You may see this referred to as either 日英対訳 (nichi-ei taiyaku) or 英文対照 (eibun taishou) in Japanese. These books exist mainly to help Japanese learners of English. However, they’re also useful for English learners of Japanese.
Sadly, not many of these books exist. One notable example is 日本の歴史 (History of Japan), a thorough review of Japanese history. (Note: links to Amazon.JP are affiliate links.) Given that historical names can be hard to pronounce, this book’s a lifesaver for anyone looking to immerse in Japanese history in the Japanese language.
Recently, however, I found another useful side-by-side translation book. Actually, it’s an entire series that’s perfect for anyone who wants to up their Japanese reading to the next level.
Japanese reading practice with Asahi Shimbun’s Tensei Jingo
Asahi Shimbun is one of Japan’s oldest newspapers, dating back to 1879. It’s also Japan’s second best-selling newspaper, trailing only the slightly older (1874) Yomiuri Shimbun.
A centerpiece of the paper is its column Tensei Jingo (天声人語) – i.e., Vox Populi, Vox Dei (The Voice of the People is the Voice of God). The short op-ed section is written anonymously by members of Asahi’s editorial staff, who take on duties for fixed periods.
The column attempts to touch on some aspect of the news from a different angle – e.g., by tying today’s news back to a historical event, or exploring a new event’s possible future ramifications. For example, the above excerpt (available here) discusses local opposition to moving the US military base in Okinawa to Henoko. Okinawans have long opposed the base. The op-ed puts that opposition into the larger historical context of the mainland government running roughshod over the interests of local citizens, dating back to the order during the Meiji period to extinguish native Ryukyuan culture.
Tensei Jingo is limited to Asahi Shimbun subscribers online. However, if you purchase an Asahi digital subscription, you can access about four years’ worth of back issues of Tensei Jingo. (You can purchase one without a Japanese credit card. I highly recommend it if you can afford it.)
The Tensei Jingo side-by-side readers
While short, Tensei Jingo essays are also dense, for all the reasons I cited above.
Luckily, Asahi’s here to help. Every quarter, the paper publishes a compiled version of the past three months of op-eds in a book that includes English translations! As of this writing, Asahi just published the Summer 2023 edition.
The primary purpose of this book is to help Japanese speakers read complex English. However, in the introduction to each volume, Asahi says it recognizes that Japanese learners can benefit from the book, too. Recognizing that, it’s attached furigana (Ruby) – hiragana readings over each kanji – so that Japanese learners can learn the pronunciation of complex kanji and kanji compounds.
As one of my followers on X (formerly Twitter) noted, this is a great book for aspiring translators as well. One problem I see over and over again with beginner translations is that they sound like someone translated Japanese word-for-word into English. As a result, they don’t sound like native English at all. They sound stilted and alien.
Asahi’s translations aren’t “literal” word-for-word translations. Instead, the translators aimed to create natural English. That means they introduce idioms that you might find in English speech or op-eds.
For example, the piece pictured above relates to the blatant daytime robbery of a high-end Rolex shop in Ginza (a subject I wrote about back when it happened). The translators translate the original Japanese title, 不手際な強盗事件 (the inept theft), as the more idiomatic “Amateur Hour in Ginza.” The translation still conveys the intent of the original but in a manner that sounds much more like something a native English speaker might say.
Since the book is mainly aimed at Japanese learners of English, the only vocabulary hints accompanying these translations are English to Japanese. But even these are informative for Japanese learners. They will likely expose you to new ways of saying things in Japanese that you haven’t encountered before.
And, of course, given the nature of these essays, you’ll find some great Japanese expressions you didn’t know previously. One of my recent favorites was 笠に着る (kasa ni kiru), which means misusing the reputation (e.g., of your company) to personal advantage.
Using the Tensei Jingo books for Japanese reading practice
If you live in Japan, you can buy the latest editions of the Tensei Jingo books from most bookstores. (I’ve found them in both Yurindo, which you can find in Atre malls, and in Kinokuniya.) If you’re outside of Japan, you can buy them through Amazon JP and ship them internationally to wherever you live.
How do you make the most of these texts? Here are some of my techniques and ideas for learning from the Tensei Jingo essays:
Read each essay a couple of times
Do an initial reading without referencing the English first to see how much you pick up. Then, reread it, consulting the English translation for anything you couldn’t puzzle out the first time.
Review with a Japanese teacher
If you’re really stuck, schedule a 1:1 lesson with a professional Japanese teacher to help you out. Use this link to schedule your first lesson with Preply for 50% off retail price.
Use a J-J dictionary
If you don’t understand a specific word or phrase, look it up in a J-J (Japanese to Japanese) dictionary. If you’re reading Tensei Jingo, there’s no need to rely on J-E dictionaries anymore!
Kotobank is my favorite online Japanese dictionary. iPhone users can download 辞書 by Monokakido, which is an uber-dictionary that lets you buy and download numerous dictionaries for use. My favorite among these is Daijirin (which Kotobank uses). I also like the 漢字検定 (Kanji Kentei) dictionary, which is a dictionary meant for people who want to take Japan’s notoriously difficult Kanji test.
Repetition helps. Go back and read old essays occasionally to practice what you learned.
You can also put words into a vocabulary list for separate studying. Dictionaries like Daijirin in the 辞書 app enable adding words to bookmarks for later study.
(At this level, I don’t recommend using Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) programs like Anki. They’re dull, lack context, and sap your will to study Japanese. If you can read native materials, your primary practice method should be reading or listening to native language media.)
Other readers for Japanese learners for Japanese reading practice
If Tensei Jingo feels a little outside of your grasp right now, there are other readers you can use instead.
OMG Japan sells a wide range of readers for Japanese learners at all levels (note: links to OMG Japan are affiliate links). One pricey but nice-looking option is the Japanese Readers series from Genki, makers of my favorite Japanese textbook series.
The Genki series only appears to cover up to advanced elementary. For something more at an intermediate level, there’s the Nihongo Tadoku series. The Tadoku books cover up to JLPT N3 and N2 levels of Japanese, so they’re a good gateway to reading more complicated material in the wild.
For those more at the Tensei Jingo level, I can’t recommend enough owning a copy of Read Real Japanese: Essays. Produced by Kodansha, this little book contains six original Japanese essays by authors such as Sakai Junko and Banana Yoshimoto. The book contains audio renditions of each essay so you can practice using the Listening-Reading method. And the detailed notes go into finer points of grammar and style you’re unlikely to find in any textbook.
I was happy to run across the Tensei Jingo books by pure accident while browsing Yurindo. They’ve now become a part of my quest to level up my Japanese to full fluency. I hope they become a part of your Japanese journey as well!