About reading Murakami as a way to learn Japanese

About reading Murakami as a way to learn Japanese

As mentioned in my previous posts (Reading Murakami in Japanese, Some tips for reading Japanese as a learner, My journey of learning Japanese), I started reading Murakami Haruki’s “1Q84” in Japanese in October 2014. The paperback version consists of 6 volumes (2 for each Book), 2,057 pages in total. At the end of June 2020, I finally finished the book.

I had started learning Japanese in early 2011 in preparation for a research trip. Unfortunately because of the tsunami and the nuclear disaster the trip didn’t go ahead. But I did go to Japan for two months in the summer of 2012 and again in the summer of 2014. So I had been learning Japanese for about four years and had four months of a more or less immersive experience before I started on the book.

However, I had been learning Japanese in a rather haphazard, not very systematic way, because I felt it was more fun that way. Nevertheless, I had put in a considerable amount of time and effort. I took some group lessons but they did not continue beyond the very basics. Then I took one-to-one lessons with a Japanese teacher, which was a much better way to learn. The lessons focused on conversation and grammar but we didn’t cover kanji. I started learning kanji using several apps. The one I’ve been using most consistently is Memrise, to study the meanings of the Jouyou kanji. I don’t like mnemonics-based methods like Heisig’s, and I’ve paid the price for that, because apparently with that method you can learn all readings and meanings for all 2,136 Jouyou kanji in a few months. Whereas all these years later, I still have to practise every day.

So, what did I learn through reading Murakami? Despite what others may say, I learned that reading Murakami is hard. Initially, a page took me more than half an hour. Now, after six years, it takes me about five minutes, but that is still much lower than my English reading speed: reading the same passage in English only takes a minute. Arguably Murakami’s writing style is comparatively straightforward, and personally I had (even) more difficulty reading Banana Yoshimoto’s “Tokage” than 1Q84, but that doesn’t mean that I found Murakami easy.

But I determined, despite that or because of it, not to give up. I kept going, a few pages at a time. Eventually I got there. I found that reading with a dictionary and looking up the readings and meanings of any character or word I didn’t know is not only wonderfully engaging but also really works as a way to learn Japanese. My reading skills have improved dramatically, and so have my vocabulary and my grasp of grammar. As a result, my writing, listing and speaking skills have also improved. So on the whole, I would recommend reading a Japanese novel as a way of learning Japanese, if you are not in a hurry.

On the other hand, I also learned I still have so much to learn. I still don’t know all readings for the Jouyou kanji, and keep forgetting the meanings. I still struggle with conversation (although that may partly be as a result of my tendency of overcomplicating things and wanting to be too precise) and with handwriting. I started handwriting practice in 2018. It requires a better understanding of the structure of the kanji, but it is fun and my recall is improving. I still have a long way to go before I’ll be able to write all Jouyou kanji.

I have written down some of my observations before: Reading Murakami in Japanese, Some tips for reading Japanese as a learner, My journey of learning Japanese. One specific thing I started noticing only when reading the last two volumes of 1Q84 is that, when I see a word and I think I can’t pronounce it, often it turns out I can after all, if I just make a little more effort, a kind of mental jump into the unknown. There is a wonderful Japanese expression for this:

Kiyomizu no butai kara tobioriru

清水の舞台から飛び降りる

(きよみずのぶたいからとびおりる)

which literally translates as “to jump off the platform of the Kiyomizu-dera temple”, but means “to make a leap into the dark”. (The platform of the beautiful and ancient Kiyomizu-dera temple in Kyoto offers great views but is also twelve metres high, so jumping off it may not be a good idea.)

Recall is sometimes more about daring rather than about remembering: rather than going for conscious recall, trust your unconscious mind to pick the right reading. You actually remember more than you think you remember.

Coda: the novel itself

You may wonder: having spent nearly six years reading it, do I think it is a good book? I do. It was certainly for the most part entertaining and interesting. I have written three posts about various remarkable points in the book (Repetition in Murakami’s 1Q84, Why the ‘Little People’ say ‘Ho ho’, and Cold or not: a riddle in Murakami’s 1Q84).

Are there aspects I don’t like? Yes. The ending leaves me wanting to know what happened to the other characters. Also, there is a bit too much repetition, which I think is a consequence of the book being published in three parts, and in every part Murakami (or his publisher) has felt it necessary to provide sufficient background on what happened before so that each part can be read on its own. There are some parts that I found a bit slow, because I was impatient to get back to the plot, but usually even these parts were actually quite interesting.

And finally, will I ever re-read it? Maybe, if my Japanese reading speed ever gets close to my English one.

  • The banner picture is the dragon-shaped spout of the water basin at the entrance of the Kiyomizu-dera temple in Kyoto

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