Hello future fluent Japanese speaker! So you’ve learned katakana, mastered hiragana, and studied your way through an introductory textbook like Genki or Minna no Nihongo. What’s next? It’s time to start reading native Japanese materials. But what to read? Children’s books are boring and just looking at the pages of kanji in a novel can make your head feel like it’s going to explode. Don’t panic! Fortunately, Japan has a volumes and volumes of perfect material, full of pictures but with stories and characters written for young adults and adults. It’s manga to the rescue!
However, not all manga are created equal. Some are chock full of long-winded discourse and vocabulary that would make a Japanese teacher cry, but fear not, I’ve found the perfect manga for beginners. It’s called Yotsubato, and it’s magical. It’s about a curious and mischievous five-year-old girl named Yotsuba who lives with her father in rural Japan, and it will appeal to anyone who knows, or once was, a child.
This one is huge. If you have to struggle through every page, a dictionary to your left and grammar reference to your right, reading seems too much like work. In fact, it is work, and we call it translation. Yotsubato can be enjoyed with a relatively low Japanese level. She’s five (although she mistakenly claims to be six), and, in fact, isn’t even a native Japanese child herself. It’s mentioned that her father went abroad to adopt her, but the country is never specified. In any case, not only is she a child who speaks in simple language, she’s a child learning a new language, just like you are. Her age and language ability also keep the adults in the series speaking at a relatively easy to understand level.
For those of you who aren’t kanji ninjas, this one’s for you. No one likes spending hours tracking down unknown kanji. Whether you draw them in on your phone or look them up by radical, it’s an undeniable hassle. Fortunately, Yotsubato has got you covered. First of all, almost all kanji are written with furigana (the reading in hiragana) to the side, so you can look them up easily. Second, Yotsuba’s a kid. Kids don’t know kanji. That means that she speaks almost entirely in hiragana while the adults around her speak in kanji. (Sidenote: Isn’t that a great way to visually distinguish between child speech and adult speech?)
Even better, the pattern often emerges where adults will say something in kanji, and she’ll parrot it back, ask the meaning, and have the adult explain it to her. This is great for beginning readers because you might not have to reach for the dictionary at all! You can learn new words like a child does, in context and defined in your target language.
No matter how easy to read a manga might be, you won’t want to read it if the story isn’t worthwhile. Yotsubato is gold. A friend of mine is an elementary school teacher. He recently told me that whenever he comes home frustrated because he can’t understand why one of his kids is behaving a certain way, he reads it for insight. Somehow, the author has captured perfectly what the world looks like through the eyes of a child. She talks about certain puddles being perfect for splashing, and certain sticks being good for drawing in the dirt. The emotions it invokes are incredible. It’s one of the few books I try to read only at home, so I don’t make a scene by bursting into laughter or trying to stifle the occasional sniffle in Starbucks. It’s hard to explain what exactly makes Yotsubato so touching. You’ll have to try and read it for yourself.
The first couple volumes are pretty plain, but as the series goes on, the artist got really into drawing gorgeous art. The faces stay simple (but expressive), but it’s the backgrounds that will really shock you. The details are incredible. From the coins she uses when shopping to the backgrounds of rural Japan, everything is perfect.
Just look at the detail in the rice fields and the siding on the houses. Right down to the hatching in her bicycle basket and the shadow of the telephone pole. They could have been modeled on just about any one of a dozen places near where I live in Tokushima. Just beautiful artwork.
Yotsuba doesn’t live in Tokyo, or Kyoto, or Osaka. She lives in the real rural Japan and has the same experiences as millions of other kids in Japan. She participates in local festivals, races her dad up endless steps to the top of temples, goes cicada hunting, goes on outings to farms, and goes camping. From the look of the neighborhood to the design on the 500 yen coin, the details are astonishing. I’ve discovered tasty snacks, noticing them in the convenience store after seeing them in the comic, and the father even has the same fluorescent lamp in his study that I have in my living room. However, a warning to those of you who have lived in Japan before, it may make you incredibly nostalgic.
Yotsubato will make you laugh, and then cry, and then laugh again. It’s been a long time since I picked up the first volume, but to this day I’ve never read other manga as magical. It’s almost my first recommendation when people ask me what to read, even if they aren’t studying Japanese, as there’s an English translation too. At thirteen volumes, it’s the goldilocks length. No one has time to catch up on the 100+ volumes of Naruto. So do yourself a favor. Head over to Amazon, or if you’re in Japan walk over to your nearest bookstore or BookOff and pick up volume one. I promise you, you won’t regret it.