Over the last one and three-quarter years I’ve been in Japan, I’ve tried a lot of different ways to study. Websites, podcasts, flash cards, textbooks, language exchange, exams, games. But one of the only things I keep coming back to is manga, Japanese comic books.
As a study aid, their most obvious strength is that being comics, they have pictures, so even if you can’t pick up all the words, you may have a chance to work out what is going on. Secondly, many manga have furigana, a pronunciation guide to the complicated Chinese character system used in Japanese. This gives a learner a fighting change when using a dictionary, as looking up pictograms in a dictionary is no easy task. But most importantly, manga are fun, which I’ve discovered is the most important prerequisite for sticking with any study method.
If you’re not familiar with manga, it’s worth pointing out that calling them comic books is doing them a bit of a disservice, at least compared to the common perception of them in Western countries as chiefly being for kids (or older kids’ “graphic novels”). Manga are very much mainstream literature in Japan, and you can see people of every demographic reading them on the train. Certainly, the subject matter ranges from children’s stories, romance stories for teenage girls, drama, action, mystery, science fiction, all the way to those infamous and extremely adult comics. A typical bookshop will generally have a very well-stocked manga section – indeed, my local honya (bookstore) devotes half its floor space to comics.
With such a breadth of material available, the only problem, then, is to know where to start reading. Almost without fail, manga sold in bookstores are shrink-wrapped, so you can’t sneak a peak before you buy (though on the plus side, they usually retail for under AUD $10 so you can try different series out on the cheap). I constantly ask people what manga they like to read (which is also a good icebreaker), and I’ve been trying to sample their suggestions over time – here are a few of the more famous ones.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is a well-known anime (animation) in Western countries as well as Japan, so it’s not a bad place to start since you may already have a head start on the basic story. The series takes place in a post-apocalyptic near-future, where the earth is being attacked by mysterious aliens with unclear motives. To defend humanity, a bunch of teenagers are recruited to pilots equally mysterious giant robots called Evangelions. As well as plenty of hot giant robot action (if you’re into that… and really, who isn’t), there’s lots of drama, character development and a great story. Language-wise, this is certainly some tough going for a beginner, but over the course of each volume, I’ve found my comprehension has improved dramatically. A nice bonus – I managed to get an English translation of Volume 1, so being able to compare each version panel by panel is great for study. Also good about this series is that you can see conversational Japanese in lots of different contexts – in the workplace, between school kids, feminine and masculine forms, phrases used at home, military command language, things you would say while piloting a giant robot, etc. All useful stuff. This is the series that keeps me coming back, and as I’m reading the penultimate volume now, I’ll be sad to finish it soon.
This very well-known series focuses on a schoolboy called Nobita and his best friend, Doraemon, a robotic cat from the future. Whenever Nobita doesn’t want to do his homework or is being bullied by the other kids at his school, Doraemon arrives to pull an absurd gadget from his front pocket which achieves dramatic success, usually followed by dramatic, hilarious failure. This comic is aimed at kids, and I’ve often wondered what it’s teaching them. In most stories, Nobita is powerless to change his situation, so he’s always running back to Doraemon for help with a time travel machine, or a gadget that lets you tell lies that everyone will believe without fail. Nobita should really toughen up, grow a pair and start learning some martial arts. You know, stop being so dependent, kick a little arse every now and then.
In the above picture, you can see another interesting aspect of Japanese bookstores – paper covers. When you buy a comic or book, they’ll usually ask you if you want a cover. If the majority books I see on the train are any indication, most people take this option – though I’m not sure what sort of saucy stuff everyone is reading. Also notice that the spines on Japanese manga and novels are on the right-hand side, since you read them from right to left.
This is another famous series called One Piece, but I haven’t managed to get too far through this. It’s about a boy called Luffy who from childhood wants to become a pirate. In fact, he stabs himself under the eye when he’s a kid to try and impress his pirate heroes, which leaves a distinctive scar. For some reason, his body has the consistency of rubber, too – I guess I haven’t made it far enough to work out why. The chief problem for me is that all the characters talk pirate-style Japanese, which is to say very masculine, casual speech patterns – not really stuff you can use in the office too much. So, this one might have to go on to the back list for a while. Since there are 50-something volumes as it stands, there’s plenty waiting to be read.
Slam Dunk got a few recommendations too, but I’m not so sure about its merits. The basic story seems to be about a jock who wants to play basketball to impress a girl. The story is supposed to be set in a junior high school, but all the guys look like 25-year old steroid freaks. Maybe this is part of the appeal, but perhaps it’s just my lack of understanding of the culture of a Japanese school and I’m not getting the jokes.
This manga is called “My darling is a foreigner”, and is a autobiographical comedy about the Japanese author’s marriage to a Hungarian-American man, Tony. It’s very charming and funny, a lot of it focusing on the quirky differences in Tony’s outlook on life and Japanese culture. This series seems to have become a very powerful franchise lately, running ads on the train and interviews with the couple on TV. You can see the second in the series on top of the stack in the first picture, “Inside Darling’s Mind”, which is Tony’s explanation of interesting things in Japanese language and culture. I find myself nodding along with many of his head-scratching moments, and the accompanying explanations are of great value. This is also tough going (Tony is fluent in Japanese, so he’s not much help with translations), but at least it contains that key element – wanting to read it because it’s enjoyable.
I really love Japanese bookstores – there’s something about wading through a new language, sensing all that potential knowledge sitting on the shelves just waiting for you to be able to unlock it. The other great thing is that essentially, you’ve been dropped into decades of great, new material, and you can start reading the best and most notable stuff first. Given my current reading speed, though, that is looking like a very long term project indeed.