Japanese-to-English Translation Basics

Old Books

Once upon a time, when I was an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to take a translation seminar with one of the finest translators of Japanese literature into English. The course texts she selected for the seminar presented all manner of interesting translation challenges, and she brought in a number of fantastic speakers from the Kyoto-based Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators to discuss these challenges with our class. Unfortunately, I was not able to take full advantage of this seminar; it was as if these professional translators were teaching us translation calculus, and I still didn’t grasp basic translation algebra.

I just finished a tertiary round of edits for two major translation projects, and I’ve noticed a number of patterns in the areas I’ve repeatedly needed to adjust. Once I became aware of the currents my editing was following, I started to imagine that I was getting at some of the basic and fundamental issues of Japanese-to-English translation. If I could go back in time and give my fledgling translator self some advice, this is what I might say…

(1) Japanese sentences tend to begin with prepositional phrases and other subordinate clauses that separate the subject from the verb. Although sentence variety is important in English, simple subject-verb-object sentences are the foundation of muscular and fluent English prose. Consider splitting a sentence into two sentences if the sheer number and frequency of subordinate clauses render a literal translation of that sentence into a hermeneutic puzzle in English. Also, never be afraid to switch the order of words in a sentence if it sounds better to your ear, such as in the case of placing adverbs after verbs instead of in front of them.

(2) Letting the reader know that information is hypothetical or coming from a secondhand source is a common feature of Japanese, but an overuse of expressions such as “it seems,” “I heard that,” “someone said,” “it’s often said,” “perhaps,” and “maybe” tend to weaken English prose. If the information being presented is obviously a subjective impression or something that the narrator/speaker would have no way of knowing on a firsthand basis, it’s usually safe to omit the attribution markers.

(3) Adverbs, especially temporal adverbs, are much more tolerated in Japanese writing than they are in English writing. If adverbs or adverbial phrases such as “suddenly” or “after a while” are clear from the context, the translator should feel free to omit them. Also, if the meaning of an adverbial phrase can be transferred to a verb, such as in the case of “said in a loud voice” becoming “shouted,” then the translator should consider doing so. This is not diluting the author’s language but rather transforming strong writing in Japanese into strong writing in English.

(4) Avoid the passive voice whenever possible. If the subject of a passive sentence can be inferred, insert it into the sentence and change the verb to the active voice. The implications of the passive voice are interesting and valuable but can usually be deduced in other ways, and passive sentence structures are much more common and natural in Japanese than they are in English, where they can quickly become jarring to the reader.

(5) The literal translation of the triple and quadruple negatives of Japanese rhetoric sounds ridiculous in English, a language in which a single negative or positive statement is usually considered infinitely more articulate.

(6) Think twice about retaining honorific titles such as “san,” “kun,” “chan,” “buchō,” “kachō,” and “sensei” in your English translation. Such Japanese-isms can feel gimmicky, and often they are not necessary to convey the relationships between characters. Moreover, if honorifics are maintained in translation, it may still be difficult to make the reader aware of what it means when a name is used without honorifics. Japanese is well known for being able to express multiple levels of formality, but English is no slouch at conveying degrees of distance and friendliness, and the manner in which two characters speak to each other can mean much more to the reader than which honorifics they use.

(7) The written approximation of dialect is common in Japanese, but don’t try to “translate” dialect into an English equivalent unless you feel absolutely comfortable doing so. The written approximation of dialect in English will almost always appear goofy and corny to the reader. Different grammatical patterns, tonal registers, and word choices will usually help to convey dialect better than means such as replaced, duplicated, or truncated vowels.

(8) When faced with the task of translating untranslatable words, consider not translating them. You have a smartphone, your grandmother has a smartphone, your four-year-old daughter has a smartphone, and it’s not difficult to run a quick Google search for something like “kotatsu” or “umeshu.” Even without outside sources, your reader will generally be smart enough to get an approximate impression from the context. When it comes to brand names, it’s especially easy for the reader to figure out what’s being referred to from the context, and it’s generally best to leave them be without any footnoting or inserted explanation. In some cases, however, leaving a word untranslated can feel silly and pretentious to the reader, so it’s helpful to have an ideal reader in mind and cater to the presumed knowledge, tastes, and expectations of that reader.

(9) When it comes to puns, jokes, proverbs, idiomatic expressions, and made-up words, crowdsourcing translation solutions is always an option. This is why Al Gore invented the internet back in the eighties, so feel free to use social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook as your own personal dictionaries of creative genius. Some of the problems you face in translating certain words may also be an issue of relative expertise, so there’s no shame in relying on other people for help if you need to know more about how to refer to certain foods, colors, meteorological phenomena, or American sci-fi stories from the seventies. Translation is just as much of a research project as it is an art, but there’s no need for research to be a solitary task in a lonely room full of dusty books (unless of course you’d like it to be).

(10) Make sure you do at least one read-through of your translation while completely separated from the original Japanese text. Even if you have a crystal clear translation of a certain word, expression, or passage, it’s all but worthless if it doesn’t gel with the rest of the English on the page. Also, if you can exchange favors for translation checking, proofreading, and copyediting, do so and count yourself fortunate. If your ideal reader is an actual person, then let her actually read your drafts. Translation is difficult and complicated work, and you might be surprised by the things you miss as you juggle multiple documents and languages.

Finally, don’t let anyone get you down with analogies about how a translation is like a woman who can’t be pretty and faithful at the same time, or about how reading a translation is like having sex while wearing a condom, or about how the translator does damage to a text by forcibly penetrating it with a phallus-pen. Such analogies are not only gross but also inane and banal. Translation is awesome, and being able to read things originally written in a different language is an amazing privilege for those of us who benefit from translation. Some of the best English prose I’ve ever read has come in the form of translated literature, to be honest. For what it’s worth, the word games and creative challenges of translation are also an enormous amount of fun.

If you’ve just started translating from Japanese into English, good luck! And check out the Kyoto Journal‘s wonderful piece They Who Render Anew for inspiration.

An Otaku Tour of Kansai

If you’re an otaku, Tokyo is the best place to be. No other city on the face of the earth can hold a candle to Tokyo in terms of vibrant subcultures and amazing subcultural experiences that are completely open to anyone who stumbles upon them.

Kansai is awesome in its own right, however, and the region is well worth visiting, even if you’re not interested in rich cultural traditions, gorgeous architecture, and delicious food. There are plenty of things for an otaku to do in Kyoto, Osaka, and Takarazuka.

If you’re headed to Kansai, do yourself a favor and get an Icoca card from the JR automated ticket machines as soon as you exit the Shinkansen into the station. The Icoca is the Kansai equivalent of Kantō’s Suica card. Like the Suica, you pay need to pay 2000 yen for an Icoca. 500 of that yen is a deposit that will be returned to you if you turn in the card at a station office, and the rest can be used to go anywhere, anytime, on any vehicle. You can put more money on your Icoca at any station, and your remaining balance will be returned to you along with your deposit when you return the card. If you already have a Suica, you can use it for all JR rail lines in Kansai, but it doesn’t work anywhere else. Since the best way to get around Kyoto is by bus or taxi, and since the best way to get around Osaka is by subway, it’s definitely worth getting yourself an Icoca.


Besides being filled with temples and famous historic sites and traditional Japanese arts and so on, Kyoto is a tech hub and a college town populated by students, artists, and young professionals. The infinite alleyways snaking behind the main boulevards are lousy with ultra-modern restaurants, tiny theme bars, hostess clubs, host clubs, crazily decorated clothing boutiques, and art spaces the size of a hotel room. Alcohol of all types is cheap, plentiful, and delicious, and strange and fascinating things happen on the streets and along the Kamo River after dark, especially on the weekends. Kyoto is a great city to get lost in.

The top Kyoto attraction for otaku is the Kyoto International Manga Museum. This place is amazing. As an added bonus, it’s also bilingual and Anglophone-friendly. The permanent exhibit is a hyper-illustrated walkthrough of the history and development of manga, the tools and artistic techniques used to create manga, the publishing culture of manga, the genres of manga, and the internationalization of manga. The museum also hosts special exhibits showcasing the work of specific manga artists and illustrators, many of whom are local to Kyoto.

All along the walls of the museum are bookcases on which are shelved the most massive collection of manga I’ve ever seen (and I have seen some massive collections, such as the one housed in the Yoshihiro Yonezawa Memorial Library). Most of this manga is Japanese, but a sizable portion is foreign, including all sorts of North American and European translations and originals. The best part about this library is that you can take anything down from the shelves and read it for as long as you want. The museum also has a smaller library of academic materials dedicated to manga. Again, most of these materials are in Japanese, but there’s also a ton of stuff in English and other European languages. Was there some obscure manga exhibition in Germany? They have the catalog. Was there an issue of The Comics Journal from ten years ago that mentioned shōjo manga? They have that issue. The museum also publishes a few high quality pamphlets and periodicals that you’re free to take as you please (my favorite is a small magazine highlighting the areas of Kyoto featured in recent anime and manga).

To get to the museum, take the subway to the Karasuma-Oike Station, which is served by the Karasuma and the Tōzai lines. Take Exit 2 out of the station, turn to your right at the top of the staircase, and walk for a minute or two until you see the museum on your left. The museum is a converted primary school building, and you’ll know it when you see it. The pennants hanging from the telephone poles along the street in front of it help. Because the museum is awesome, they’ve posted an illustrated map explaining how to get there.

There are also a small handful of otaku specialty stores clustered along Teramachi between Sanjō and Shijō (these are all the names of streets/walkways). If you’d like to get to this area from the Manga Museum, go back to the intersection where you came out of the subway, cross the street, and turn left on Oike to go towards the Kamo River. Walk for about ten blocks (which actually isn’t that far) and enter the Teramachi covered shopping arcade on your right. To get to this area from anywhere else, start at the Sanjō-Keihan Station and cross over the Kamo River on the Sanjō bridge. Keep heading west on Sanjō for about two blocks until the street dead-ends into a covered pedestrian shopping arcade called “Sanjo Cupola.” Keep going straight through the Sanjo Cupola until you emerge into the open air (there will be a giant mechanical crab ahead on your right), and immediately turn left into the Teramachi covered shopping arcade.

After walking for awhile, you’ll see a Melon Books above a drugstore to your right. Melon Books sells hardcore pornographic manga and doujinshi for men, so enter at your own risk. Further ahead on your right you’ll see a bookstore called Manga・Can (漫画館), which is a great place to browse and discover new manga titles. A bit further ahead on your right is the Kyoto branch of Gamers, which has games (mainly of the erotic variety) on the fourth floor and manga and doujinshi on the fifth floor. Most of the merchandise stocked by Gamers is targeted at men, but the store isn’t as hardcore as Melon Books and caries many things of interest to female otaku as well.

Running parallel to Teramachi to the east (one street over to your left if you’re walking towards Shijō) is another shopping arcade called Shinkyogoku. Right before you emerge onto Shijō while walking along Shinkyogoku, there will be an Animate to your right on the second-floor level above a small open plaza. Like all Animate branches, the Kyoto store is distinctive. It has a large and well-stocked manga section that showcases work by local artists, work that has won regional manga prizes, and work appealing to yuri sensibilities.

If cross Shijō on Teramachi, you’ll find yourself on a small, uncovered street. Several dozen feet past Shijō, there will be a five-story Tora no Ana on your left and a five-story bookstore called Shinchō Shoten (信長書店) on your right. Both stores are custom-made for otaku.

Right next to Shinchō Shoten, in a tiny alley about twelve feet past the bookstore and leading off the right, is one of the best-kept secrets of Kyoto: a tiny vegetarian restaurant and sake bar called Mikōan (彌光庵). The food is cheap and delicious and varied enough that no two people will get the same meal even if they order the same thing. The décor and atmosphere are like something out of an urban fantasy novel. There are also several adorable, fluffy cats wandering around the restaurant at any given time, and they don’t mind being friendly if you engage them. Mikōan is all about how awesome Kyoto can be if you wander off the beaten path.


Osaka never gets enough credit. Sure, it’s not as rich or as populous as Tokyo, but it’s still a huge city filled with interesting places to go. The urban landscape of Osaka resembles that of Tokyo, but it’s different in all sorts of neat ways. You really will hear people speak Osaka dialect here, which is lots of fun if you’re learning Japanese.

Nanba is the Osaka equivalent of Akihabara. This neighborhood runs alongside a broad avenue called Yotsuhashi-suji or, more appropriately, in the smaller streets and alleys branching off from either side of Yotsuhashi-suji. Nanba Station is an epic mess of stores and restaurants and hotels, and there are many ways to navigate your way outside, but the area you want to be in is on the northeast side of the station. Depending on what train line you’re coming from, it might be easiest to walk through the Takashimaya department store and exit the building from the main entrance. In any case, a small street called Nansan-dōri snakes along the west side of the station. Follow it until you see a Taito Station, and turn left past the arcade. If you keep walking west along the small road (which is still called Nansan-dōri even after if veers away from the station), you’ll begin to see otaku-related stores on your right. The area between Nanba Station, Nansan-dōri, and Yotsuhashi-suji is where all of the electronics stores, maid cafés, used video game stores, and specialty book stores are. You will find a Melon Books and a Yellow Submarine along these backstreets, but, if you want to go to the K-Books and Animate, follow Nansan-dōri until the big intersection and turn right on Yotsuhashi-suji. The K-Books and Animate will be down the street to your right, and the Mandarake will be across the street on your left.

If you’re looking for doujinshi, it’s definitely worth your while to visit the K-Books here, which stocks tons of work produced by Kansai artists. Doujinshi for large fandoms are more or less equally distributed across Kantō and Kansai, but work for small fandoms from small regional conventions doesn’t always make it to Tokyo. There are also a number of original doujinshi at the Nanba K-Books that don’t fall into pre-established genres and resemble nothing so much as they do North American indie comics.

For an otaku, I think the major attraction of Osaka is the Umeda Mandarake. According to fanlore, this is *the* Mandarake, the Mandarake to end all Mandarakes, and the One True Mandarake. The Umeda Mandarake is a sprawling three-story building stuffed to the gills with crap, garbage, and treasure. The building itself looks (and smells) like it should be condemned, and the soft, creaky floor literally sags under the weight of all the junk in the store. Otaku relics are lovingly displayed in glass showcases, while the dim overhead lighting flickers and throws shadows around the piles of unopened cardboard boxes stacked in the corners. The clerks cosplay, and there is a small stage for performances on the second floor that also serves as a dais for life-size renditions of pop culture icons. This place must really been seen to be believed.

Also, if you’re looking for original doujinshi drawn by artists like Yuki Kaori and CLAMP, this is the place to go. In addition, on the staircase landing between the second and third stories, there is a table with a few stacks of “Mandarake Note” notebooks in which visitors to the store can draw and scribble away to their hearts’ content with the art tools provided. If you take the time to flip through some of the old notebooks, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of some really familiar names and art styles. If you’re an a creative mood, you can take over your own notebook page.

Fittingly for a quest of such magnitude, it’s a pain in the ass to get to the store. The easiest method is to take one of the south exists out of the JR Osaka Station (or the Hankyū Umeda Station across the street), get in a taxi, and pay the driver ¥660 to take you to the Osaka Tokyu Inn hotel. If you’re facing the Tokyu Inn, you’ll notice a Small Alley of Ultimate Sketchiness running alongside the right side of the hotel building. Turn left into the alleyway and keep walking until you emerge into a shopping arcade with the Mandarake right in front of you.

If you want to be adventurous, you can go on foot. Take the Mitōsuji South Exit from JR Osaka Station (which can be accessed from JR rail lines and the subway lines) and cross the street under the huge pedestrian bridge. Alternately, take the South Central Exit from JR Osaka Station and climb the stairs to get on top of the huge pedestrian bridge. Either way, you’re heading for the Umeda Hankyū Building. What you’re going to want to do, either by going around, going under, or going through, is to get to the other side of this building. At street level on the other side of the building you’ll see an intersection with a concrete island in the middle of it, and, on the far side of the intersection, a covered shopping arcade called “E Street.” This shopping arcade goes on for a few blocks and in the middle crosses over an open street and changes its name to Hankyū Tōtsū Shōtengai (阪急東通商店街). The Mandarake is on towards the end of the shopping arcade on the left. The shopping arcade itself is tacky and raucous, and any of the restaurants lining the passage can provide you with a ticket out of Sober City on the Cheap Alcohol Express, if you’re interested in that sort of cultural experience.

While you’re in the area, the Osaka Pokémon Center is on the thirteenth floor of the Daimaru department store above the South Central Exit of JR Osaka Station. The store has all sorts of special goods connected to Osaka and the Johto region that you can’t get anywhere else, as well as special Spot Pass promotions for fans who bring their Nintendo DS with them.


Takarazuka is a mid-sized suburb located about a twenty minute train ride away from Osaka (and a forty-five minute ride from Kyoto, with one transfer in the middle). Not only is the area around the station interesting (it’s like an exaggerated fantasy version of the Europe described by Marcel Proust), but the city is also home to two major otaku-related attractions.

These two attractions are the Takarazuka Grand Theater building and the Osamu Tezuka Memorial Museum. Finding your way around is half the fun of an excursion to Takarazuka, so I won’t give directions. Let it suffice to say that you’re looking for the Hana no Michi (花のみち). This is an actual street divided by a raised walking path lined with flowers. It’s just as romantic as it sounds, and the Takarazuka Revue themed bronze statues along the path add to its charm.

The Takarazuka Grand Theater is the home base of the Takarazuka Revue, which is fabulousness incarnate. Even if you can’t catch a performance (if you do want to see a performance, you’ll want to book your seat well in advance), it’s fun to wander around the massive theater complex just to drink in the atmosphere. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see a fan club; and, if you’re even luckier, you might get to spot a performer. The Quatre Rêves gift shop, which is easily accessible from the Hana no Michi, stocks all sorts of CDs and DVDs, as well as tons of glossy print material. Of special interest are “bromides,” which are laminated photos of Takarazuka actresses dressed in the costumes of their famous roles. If you’re not interested in spending money on pictures of glamorous ladies, you can get all sorts of material for free in the form of pamphlets, leaflets, and promotional fliers. There are also television screens set up around the theater complex where you can chill out and enjoy videotaped awesomeness at your leisure.

At the end of the Hana no Michi and down the street a bit is the Osamu Tezuka Memorial Museum, which is marked by a giant sculpture of Tezuka’s Phoenix just outside the main entrance. The museum hosts rotating exhibitions in a spacious and well-designed gallery space, but the permanent exhibition of Tezuka memorabilia is also interesting. Not only does the museum display the usual array of photographs and animation stills, but it also showcases the notebooks that Tezuka kept as a young adult. Even if you’re not a Tezuka fan, it’s difficult not to be awed by the range and scope of the artist’s imagination as represented in these notebooks. The museum has a handful of interactive installations, but my favorite is the Animation Studio (アニメ工房) on the basement floor, where anyone can sit at a computer station, draw pictures with the tablet and stylus provided, and then animate them. There’s also an open library with editions of Tezuka manga from around the world, as well as ample space to sit down, relax, and read. You’ll see visitors dressed in Tezuka cosplay (with floopy berets and seventies glasses), and the entire building is covered with images, murals, etchings, and sculptures. Visiting the museum is a unique experience and well worth the trip out to Takarazuka.

In conclusion, Kansai is a great area to visit, and not just for temples and historical sites. Kyoto and Osaka and Takarazuka can be just as edgy, quirky, and fun as Tokyo, and there’s no reason for a short-term or a long-term visitor with otaku inclinations not to make the trip down to Kansai.

Reading Japanese Literature in Japanese

I started taking Japanese language classes as a college freshman in 2002, and I will begrudgingly admit that, almost ten years later, I’m still not entirely fluent in the language. True linguistic fluency is almost infinitely multifaceted and difficult to attain in any foreign language, especially when that foreign language is not regularly spoken in one’s everyday environment. The best way to attain a high proficiency in Japanese is to move to Japan and live there for an extended period of time. Nothing that I can suggest here can serve as a substitute for actually going abroad and living one’s life in Japanese, so the best advice I can possibly give is – go! Figure out how your school or employer can help fund your sojourn, apply for a passport, and go!

In the meantime, however, you don’t even need to leave your bedroom in order to start reading Japanese. Most Japanese language curricula focus on giving students the tools they need in order to read nonfiction texts such as newspapers, essays, and academic articles. Of course this type of instruction is useful, but a sentence like “the economy suffered a sudden downturn in the fourth quarter” requires a different set of linguistic skills than a sentence like “the stars shone brightly in the sky,” especially in Japanese. It’s therefore up to many language learners to figure out how to read Japanese fiction on their own.

What follows is a guide for students of the Japanese language who want to start reading literature – whatever their definition of “literature” may be – in Japanese. In this essay I will detail the necessary linguistic foundations before discussing useful tools and entry points for getting started. Beginning to read in Japanese may seem like a huge hurtle to clear for anyone who’s ever held an entire Japanese novel in her hands, and I’m not going to promise that it won’t be difficult, especially at first. It’s not impossible, however, and it can even be enjoyable.


I think that, at an absolute minimum, one needs two full years of college-level Japanese before it makes sense to start reading Japanese language texts. There are two primary reasons for this. The first reason is that it takes about two years to become comfortable reading the Japanese scripts as they appear on a page. Basic reading skills, such as figuring out where words begin and end, figuring out who is speaking, and figuring out how to look up unknown words, will be unavailable to a student who doesn’t have two years’ worth of knowledge of kana usage, kanji, and grammar patterns. Without these skills, the characters printed on the page are just so much linguistic slurry. The second reason one needs two years of Japanese is that it takes about that long to develop a familiarity with the way the Japanese language works outside of an artificial environment (such as a classroom or a textbook). In Japanese, as in English, writers abbreviate words, leave out words, make up words, use words in strange ways, bend the rules of grammar, and do fun things with dialog and dialect. These are not the sorts of things one can look up in a dictionary, so one needs to know the rules well enough to identify which rule has been broken. Both reasons I have given are really the same reason – literature is high level writing, and one needs to accumulate experience with the language in order to understand it.

There are obvious benefits to enrolling in college level Japanese language classes, but I realize that not everyone has the necessary resources to do so. Thankfully, there are some excellent textbooks on the market that make self study easy. My absolute favorite is the Genki series, which comes with a matching set of workbooks. The main benefits of the Genki series are that it is ergonomically formatted, it teaches vocabulary and grammar in a well organized and easily digestible manner, and it contains reading passages and practice drills that help you use what you’re supposed to be learning in the most efficient way possible. I also think the Genki series tackles the challenge of learning to read written Japanese in a superlatively intelligent and user-friendly manner. The Genki series neither gives you too much information (like an expensive hardcover textbook such as Yokoso! does) or too little information (like a popular study guide such as Adventures in Japanese does), and it also integrates grammar and vocabulary seamlessly into speech patterns and the written language, unlike mass market texts such as those created by companies like Berlitz and Rosetta Stone. The two Genki books will teach you the rules of Japanese; and then, once you’ve mastered these rules, you can go on to the next book in the series, An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese, which will teach you how to apply the rules to real conversations and reading material.

In whatever way you choose to study, it’s good to have those two years of Japanese language experience under your belt before you start trying to read real texts. Of course language learning ability differs from one person to the next; but, if you have less than two years of experience, attempting to read Japanese is more than likely going to be an exercise in frustration. I think the problem most people have, however, is not diving headfirst into real Japanese, but rather waiting too long to get their feet wet. I don’t think there’s any real need to wait until you’ve learned all the grammar points or all the kanji before you start reading – all you need is the right set of tools.

Useful Tools

As with many realms of study in the twenty-first century, the most useful tools available to you are digital, and the foremost of these digital tools is the internet. As wireless internet access is not available in all times and all places (especially in Japan), however, it’s always good to be in the possession of more concrete tools as well.

The single most useful tool available to someone moving past the initial stages of Japanese language study is a denshi jisho, or electronic dictionary. A denshi jisho will include a wide range of dictionaries, including the Genius series of English/Japanese and Japanese/English dictionaries. (Models with dictionaries for other languages, such as French and Chinese, are available as well.) Denshi jisho will also, without fail, include a Japanese dictionary, which is like a combination of a Japanese-language OED and an illustrated encyclopedia that may include sound (just in case you need to know the difference between the calls of two species of crickets, for example). Electronic Japanese dictionaries come equipped with a feature called gyaku-jibiki, which allows the user to search for a word by its last character instead of by its first, as well as many other search tools that accommodate the difficulties involved in figuring out how any given kanji is read.

If you don’t know a word in any of the entries you’re reading, most denshi jisho have a “jump” feature that allows you to highlight a word on the screen and then go to that word’s entry in any other dictionary available on your machine (including the Japanese/English one) before returning to the original entry. This is useful if, for example, you’re using one of the more specialized dictionaries available on your denshi jisho. Depending on the model you choose, these specialized dictionaries may include a Classical Japanese dictionary, an encyclopedia of Japanese history, an index of Japanese poetry, a dictionary for katakana words and onomatopoeia, a dictionary for four-character phrases, a botanical reference guide, and so on.

One of the most useful features of any denshi jisho is its kanji dictionary. Learning to use one of these things is a cultural and linguistic experience in and of itself. If your model has a stylus and a trackpad, all you need to do is to write the character – these pieces of equipment have better handwriting recognition software than iPhones and Wacom tablets. If your model doesn’t have a trackpad (and many of them don’t), there are still plenty of plenty of ways to look up kanji, the most useful of which is by a combination of radical and stroke count. Once you find the character in the dictionary, you will turn up a wealth of information, including how it pronounced, a list of words beginning with and including the character, a brief etymology and a Chinese pronunciation guide. Once you get used to your denshi jisho, searching for kanji becomes quick, easy, and painless. No paper source in existence can compete with a digital kanji dictionary.

Denshi jisho can be purchased at any electronics store (and many large bookstores) in Japan, but they’re harder to come by abroad. If you live near a major urban center, Japanese bookstores (such as Kinokuniya) will generally have a selection of denshi jisho on display. You can also order one through Amazon.co.jp, whose restrictions on shipping electronics overseas doesn’t apply to these devices. The two most common brands are Sharp and Canon. There is a greater difference between individual models than there is between the two brands as a whole, but lower price range Sharp models tend to be more technologically sophisticated (with trackpads, color screens, auditory pronunciation guides, and embedded video), while most Canon models have an English language menu setting and touchscreens (which is great for highlighting words and “jumping” between dictionary entries).

If you don’t want to invest in a denshi jisho, there are many excellent resources on the internet, one of which is a site called Denshi Jisho, which features a great kanji lookup system. My personal favorite online Japanese dictionary is Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC, which will return tons of entries and example sentences for any search, including searches for internet slang, English-derived portmanteaus and other neologisms, and onomatopoeia so obscure that they don’t appear in Japanese dictionaries. If you’re in the habit of reading Japanese online, a popup browser plug-in called Rikaichan can define any text you highlight in your web browser (although it doesn’t always work so well with Flash-embedded text).

I am given to understand that there are also many types of tools available on the iPhone and the iPad. I don’t have enough experience with either of these devices to make recommendations, but a quick search on Google will turn up dozens of lists and reviews.

Getting Started

Speaking from an almost complete lack of training in linguistics, I can confidently say that some types of language are more difficult to read than others. As it just so happens, however, the types of language that you’re interested in are going to be much easier for you to learn to read than the types of language you’re not interested in. What this means is that, once you’re ready to read, it’s not necessary use “training wheels.” If you’re interested in reading mystery novels, read mystery novels. If you’re interested in reading manga, read manga. If you’re interested in reading novels by Kawabata Yasunari, read novels by Kawabata Yasunari (they’re actually not that difficult).

I don’t mean to suggest that one can simply pick up a book and read it. What I am trying to suggest is that there’s no need to slowly work your way up through material of increasing levels of difficulty until you’re finally able to read what you actually want to read. You don’t need to slog through fourth grade level readers or collections of fairy tales written for children if you think stuff like that is stupid and boring. You don’t have to muddle your way through the confusing layouts and endless notes and vocabulary lists of “Japanese-English parallel text” books like Reading Real Japanese or Breaking into Japanese Literature if you don’t want to. You shouldn’t feel the need to start with something “easy” like the Japanese translations of the Harry Potter books (which aren’t actually that easy, as it turns out). These sorts of preparatory exercises really aren’t necessary.

That being said, some books are easier to read than others. Even among manga titles by the same artist that all use simple vocabulary and furigana, some are going to be easier to understand by virtue of good editing and solid storytelling. For example, Ōkubo Atsushi’s popular shōnen series Soul Eater is much easier to read in Japanese than his debut series B. Ichi. The same goes with literature. To offer an example from my own experience, the first writer I tried to read in Japanese was a nightmare until I figured out that what she wrote in the sixties is infinitely easier to read than what she wrote in the eighties. Before I was able to arrive at this conclusion, however, I gave up on her altogether in order to read another writer writing at the same time on roughly similar themes using much simpler vocabulary and sentence structures. The point I’d like to illustrate with these examples is that there’s no shame in giving up on something difficult in order to search out something easier. Reading in Japanese is not about punishing yourself or training yourself through hardship; it’s about experiencing the pleasure of becoming immersed in something you enjoy. You shouldn’t be hunched over a desk with a dictionary and a notebook; you should be chilling out in the bath or in a hammock in your backyard.

Unless you’re preternaturally brilliant, you’re going to go through an awkward stage in which you make embarrassing mistakes in interpretation and can’t read more than two or three pages at a time. The progress you’ll be able to make during this awkward stage shouldn’t be underestimated, however. You’ll learn things about the Japanese language that you never would have learned in a textbook, such as how to appreciate the nuances of word choice and the subtle differences in writing styles. Reading a page at a time will turn into reading two pages at a time, and two pages will turn into three pages, and three pages will eventually turn into just one more chapter, which will eventually turn into I am not sleeping until I finish this.

In other words, reading Japanese is hard…

…but it gets better!

Good luck!

How to Do Research on Japanese Literature

This is an introductory guide to doing research that I wrote for an undergraduate class on Japanese literature that I’m teaching this fall. Because I wish someone had given me this sort of information when I was a freshman in college, I’m posting this guide online with the hope that it will prove useful to a broader audience.

Before I begin, I have two pieces of advice that should prove helpful to the research process.

(1) The success of your search is largely dependent upon the strength of your search terms. Instead of searching for material on a broad topic, search instead for a key figure closely associated with that topic. For example, search for “Kirino Natsuo” instead of “Japanese mystery fiction,” or “Tsuruya Namboku IV” instead of “zankoku no bi.”

(2) Once you have successfully located a book or article, pay close attention to its footnotes and bibliography. These citations will help steer you toward work related to your topic that might not appear in more specialized searches, and they’re a very good place to start looking for material in Japanese.

This guide is divided into three sections: academic sources (that require a subscription through a university library), extra-academic sources (that do not require a subscription), and Japanese-language sources (which also do not require a subscription). Since most basic information, such as biographical details and publishing history, is readily available online, this guide focuses on databases that will help you find books and articles on a given topic.

Academic Sources

This database offers full-text academic articles for download as PDF files. It also contains citations of articles that can be downloaded directly from the websites of academic journals. Some of these journals, like Monumenta Nipponica, require a university subscription in order to be accessed, while others, like intersections, are freely available to anyone.

Project MUSE
This is another database offering full-text academic articles available for download, but it draws its search results from a slightly different selection of journals. For example, articles from the journal Mechademia are available on Project MUSE but not on JSTOR.

The Bibliography of Asian Studies
This is a specialty database that will display book-length monographs and translations in addition to academic articles. It will also occasionally display academic work written in French and German. This database contains only citations, however, and not full-text articles. Like JSTOR and Project MUSE, the Bibliography of Asian Studies must be accessed through a university connection or university proxy server.

Unlike the above three databases, this collection of databases is intended for a less “academic” user. Searches made on this aggregate will thus turn up sources such as general interest magazine articles and book reviews, although occasionally an academic article might show up as well. EBSCO is usually available in public libraries, but a subscription is still necessary to access the site.

Extra-Academic Sources

The primary goal of Amazon is to make money, and Amazon can’t make money if it can’t help you find what you’re looking for. Amazon’s advanced search engine makes it perhaps the single best place to find academic books either on or related to your topic. Not only does Amazon search titles, but it also searches tables of contents and whatever portions of the text it has available for free viewing, which usually includes the Library of Congress cataloging data. As a result, Amazon is one of the few places where less specific search terms can be used effectively. Amazon search results will include the newest books and books that aren’t even in print yet, which I believe makes the site a necessary supplement to library catalogs.

It’s always good to check the Wikipedia article(s) on your topic for their citations. Academics (especially grad students working on cutting-edge research) are not above editing Wikipedia articles and citing their own books and essays. Wikipedia is therefore a relatively painless way to find just-published studies, especially when you’re researching a topic related to contemporary Japan.

Google Scholar
Google Scholar displays citations that will link you either directly to Google Books or to an article on a database like JSTOR. Google Scholar is therefore useful to people who have access to InterLibrary Loan (through a public library) but not to a university library and its resources.

University Library Webpages
I have never encountered a university library webpage that requires you to enter login information in order to search its online database. Thus, even if you’re not a student at a particular university, you can still search that library’s collection. Moreover, the library websites of major universities usually contain pages devoted to a specific area of study (for example, here is Columbia University’s page on Japanese Studies), although you typically need to be connected through the university to access the databases that are listed on these pages. In any case, it has been my experience that American university libraries will generally let you physically enter the building even if you’re not affiliated with the university, although you won’t be able to check out books without special permission.

Japanese-Language Sources

National Diet Library OPAC
An institution similar to the American Library of Congress, the National Diet Library houses every book published in Japan. The library’s OPAC (online public access catalog) is your key to searching their collection. If you’re lazy like me and prefer to read articles instead of books, you can use the library’s specialized magazine and article search (雑誌記事索引の検索). You can search also run searches in English, but be aware that these searches will only turn up books and articles written in English and other foreign languages. If you happen to be in Japan, it is possible to visit both the Tokyo and Kyoto branches of the National Diet Library without any sort of credentials or special registration. The library staff will find and deliver any materials you request, and they will photocopy articles and book chapters for a small fee. If you can’t make it to Japan, the library website contains many other services and features besides the OPAC, some of which are explained by this essay.

WINE (Waseda University OPAC)
For more specialized academic searches, you can try using the OPAC of a major Japanese research university. I have found that the one hosted by Waseda University has been the most helpful. Running a search on a university library’s collection will often turn up a different (and more useful) set of books and journals than a search of the National Diet Library, and university library call numbers can be extremely useful when placing a request on InterLibrary Loan. Unfortunately, it is extraordinarily difficult to enter Japanese university libraries in person if one is not already affiliated with the university.

While a university library OPAC is good for academic books, CiNii is a great place to go for academic articles. A search on CiNii will get you far more relevant results than a search through the National Diet Library, and all entries are linked directly to WorldCAT, which makes it easy to request articles through InterLibrary Loan. It is possible to download PDF copies of certain articles from CiNii, but you must be a registered user, a privilege for which you have to pay. You must also pay for each download. I have never felt the need to pay these user fees, so I’m not sure how well the paid service works, but I have still found the site to be extraordinarily useful.

Amazon Japan
Because so many general interest books and journals are published on specialized topics in Japan, Amazon Japan is perhaps the single most convenient source for literary, cinematic, and cultural criticism written in Japanese. Although Amazon Japan doesn’t offer discounts like the American Amazon, the site is somehow able to keep books in stock that are almost impossible to find anywhere else. Furthermore, once you add a book to your cart, you are instantly given the titles of two dozen other books and journal issues on your topic. Just because you have put something in your cart doesn’t mean you have to buy it (especially since international shipping is expensive), and Amazon Japan contains all the publishing information you will need to request a book or journal through InterLibrary Loan. Never underestimate the power of Amazon.


As I mentioned earlier, this guide is meant to be both brief and introductory. More specialized research will obviously require more specialized databases, indexes, and dictionaries. Thankfully, a great deal of the information that used to be contained only in rare books is now freely accessible online. The best place to start looking for specialized resources is through the web pages of the libraries of major research institutions in America and Canada. It is also possible to get in touch with the librarians and bibliographers of the East Asian Studies collections of these libraries if you’re stuck. People put things online so that they can be accessed. This information exists so that you can make use of it. Whether you’re a professional student or just someone who’s curious about a particular topic, you will definitely be able to find out what you want to know and get your hands on all sorts of interesting things to read.

The image at the top of this guide illustrates the concept of studying by moonlight reflected off of snow in winter and by the luminescence of a bag of fireflies in summer. When it comes to research, where there is a will, there is a way. Good luck!

A Treasure Hunter’s Guide to Dōjinshi

Or, how to find dōjinshi in Tokyo. Here is what you need to know before you set out:

First, stores specializing in dōjinshi tend to fall into two categories, dansei-muke (for men) and josei-muke (for women). Dansei-muke dōjinshi are usually highly pornographic, and it is far from uncommon for them to feature the graphic rape of minors (or characters drawn to look like minors). The term josei-muke refers to the genre of boys love (BL), but the majority of the dōjinshi found in josei-muke stores aren’t BL at all but rather humor, parody, drama, or light heterosexual romance. You can usually tell what you’re getting from the cover, but every dōjinshi is enclosed in a plastic slipcase that you can’t (and shouldn’t try to) open until you actually buy the thing. Most general-audience dōjinshi are ¥210, and a good rule of thumb is that, the more expensive the dōjinshi, the more pornographic its content. There are exceptions to this – the dōjinshi in question may be particularly rare, or particularly good, or by a particularly well-known artist – but again, you can usually make an educated guess on the content based on the cover.

Second, you need to know how to read Japanese. It goes without saying that all dōjinshi are written in Japanese (regardless of whether English is used on the cover). More importantly, no English is used in any of the stores. Dōjinshi are organized in kana order by the title of whatever work they’re based on and grouped according to genre (ie, video games, shōnen manga, Western television shows, Korean boy bands, etc). Dōjinshi based on more popular series (such as Hetalia or Final Fantasy VII) are further organized by pairing or dōjin circle. You’re therefore going to need to be able to read Japanese in order to navigate the stores. The staff at these stores is generally happy to help you find what you’re looking for, but you need to tell them the title of the gensaku (original work on which the dōjinshi is based) in Japanese before they can help you. If you’re not confident about your Japanese, it might be useful to bring a friend to help you navigate and to visit the stores as soon as they open (so they won’t be crowded).

With that in mind, here we go!


Ikebukuro, and more specifically Otome Road, is the mecca for fujoshi. It should be the first and last place that any female dōjinshi hunter visits. If you’ve never been here before, let me promise you that it’s anything beyond your wildest dreams. Bring lots of money.

Ikebukuro Station is absolute chaos, and it’s very easy to get lost. In general, though, you want to head towards the Seibu side of the station. There are several exits out of the JR portions of the station; but, if you follow the yellow signs for “Sunshine” (which are referring to Sunshine City), you should be headed in the right direction. The specific exit you want to take out of the station is Exit 35.

You’ll emerge from chaos into chaos. There will be a huge Bic Camera to your left and an enormous throng of people directly in front of you. Follow the throng straight ahead and then to the left to a street crossing. On the other side of the street will be a Lotteria on the left and a Café Spazio on the right. Cross the street and pass in between these two restaurants to enter an enormous shopping street called Sunshine Plaza. Walk all the way down the street until you reach a highway overpass. Cross the road under the overpass on the right side and then turn right in front of the Toyota Auto Salon. Walk until you reach a Family Mart, and then take a hard left all the way around the corner building. You should see an Animate in front of you. Congratulations! You’ve reached Otome Road.

Otome Road begins at the Animate and ends at the three-story K-Books Dōjin-kan. This K-Books is probably the single best dōjinshi store in all of Tokyo. They have dōjinshi for every conceivable fandom, and they usually have the same dōjinshi for less money (¥210 as opposed to ¥420) than at the Mandarake you passed on the way. They also have tons of original dōjinshi and dōjinshi sets (all of the dōjinshi in a series, or a dōjinshi packaged with extras like fans or postcards). Keep in mind that all of the dōjinshi on the second floor are new and can usually be found for a fraction of the price on the third floor, where they sell used dōjinshi. What I like about this particular store is that they have a lot of general interest dōjinshi that have nothing to do with yaoi. The previously mentioned Mandarake has a much stronger focus on BL dōjinshi, and it’s a good place to find original dōjin artbooks as well.

There are two different branches of Café Swallowtail (a famous butler café) on Otome Road, one next to the Mandarake and one next to the K-Books. If you’d like to visit, make sure that you’re familiar with the process of attaining a reservation before you go. The two locations have two different reservation procedures, and you can only make a reservation for a thirty-minute time slot. Don’t be afraid of trying one out, even if your Japanese isn’t perfect, but it’s way more fun to go with a friend (especially since the cafés are geared towards parties of two).

On your way through Sunshine Plaza from the station to the highway overpass, you can turn right at any point to enter a maze of manga stores, maid cafés, and cat cafés. Also, if you’re really into Japanese youth culture and fashion, try entering Sunshine City (you’ll know it when you see it), which is the size of a small city – a small city filled with clothing and accessories for teenagers (and an aquarium). Finally, the cinemas lining Sunshine Plaza are the best places to go to see an animated movie, whether it’s the new Ghibli film or the latest feature-length spin-off of a popular franchise like K-ON. They’re also good places to pick up all the guidebooks and merchandise that accompany these movies. If you need to chill out and kill time before a show, you can always take advantage of one of the many many many kitschy love hotels (which are cheap and clean and more than likely have a nicer shower than your apartment or hotel) right off the main street.


Akihabara is where you go to get porn. The end.

Okay, seriously. Akihabara specializes in dansei-muke dōjinshi. There are tons of small dōjinshi stores located several floors up or several floors down from the narrow side streets that twist through the main electronics district. Many of these smaller stores cater to specific fetishes, and some of these fetishes might be extremely disturbing to some people. I will therefore leave the true exploration of this area to the truly adventurous. Thankfully, the Akihabara branches of K-Books and Mandarake are fairly mainstream (although still filled with porn).

Take the Akihabara Electric Town exit out of the JR station. Straight ahead you’ll be looking at several columns and a storefront, so head to your left to exit. Once outside the building, turn to your right. A few dozen feet down the left side of the street you’ll see the Radio Kaikan. There are several entrances into this building, but you want to take the escalator that goes directly from the storefront up to the second floor. (It’s right next to the display of electronic dictionaries. Incidentally, this is the single best place in Japan to get an electronic dictionary, as it has all the latest models at 40-60% off the list price.) Once off the escalator, go up the stairs to the third floor and then turn to your right to enter the K-Books dōjinshi store. Whatever fandom you’re interested in, from Evangelion to Azumanga Daioh, they have porn of it. They also have tons of fresh dōjinshi from the latest comic markets at reasonable prices, as well as other dōjin goods such as Vocaloid albums and body pillow covers.

[ETA: As of July 1, 2011, the Akihabara branch of K-Books has relocated to the “Akiba Cultures Zone” (AKIBAカルチャーズZONE). To get there, use the directions for Mandarake but turn to your left before the Sumitomo Fudōsan instead of after it. In other words, turn left at the Daikokuya electronics store (you should see the K-Books storefront reflected in the glass windows of the Sumitomo building). The first floor houses used manga, and the dōjinshi are on the second floor.]

The other big dōjinshi store in Akihabara is the Mandarake complex, which has separate floors for dansei-muke dōjinshi and josei-muke dōjinshi (as well as other floors for other things, like used manga and cosplay supplies). To get there, go straight past the Radio Kaikan until you reach a large street. This road is Chūō-dōri. Cross over to the other side of the street and turn to your right. Walk for about two blocks until you read the Sumitomo Fudōsan Building. Turn to your left after this building onto a small street, and you should see the Mandarake complex ahead on the right. The fourth floor has josei-muke dōjinshi, and the third floor had dansei-muke dōjinshi. The selection on both floors isn’t the best, but you can sometimes find stuff here that you can’t find anywhere else, such as the dōjinshi of a popular circle called CRIMSON, which publishes print versions of its dōjin visual novel games.

On the way to Mandarake, you will have seen the main branch of Tora no Ana on the other side of Shōwa-dōri. Tora no Ana publishes its own art books and dōjinshi (and a few mainstream manga like Fuku-Yomo), but its third floor is a fujoshi paradise of BL manga, manga magazines, and dōjinshi. Even if you’re not into porn, it’s worth visiting the Tora no Ana in Akihabara just to check out the culture.


The main attraction of Shibuya is the Mandarake, which specializes in used pornographic manga and figurines but has a sizeable josei-muke dōjinshi section with a unique selection. Since this Mandarake is somewhat removed from Otome Road, the dōjinshi in stock here aren’t the newest or the freshest that you can get your hands on, but this can work to your advantage if you’re looking for dōjinshi based on older titles like Sailor Moon, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Nodame Cantible, Hellsing, Wild Arms, Final Fantasy IV, or the next-to-latest incarnation of the Pokémon franchise. Also, if you’re looking for dōjinshi based on manga by CLAMP or the films of Studio Ghibli, this is the place to go. If you’re looking for original dōjinshi drawn by an artist like Ono Natsume or Yoshinaga Fumi, this is also the place to go. This particular store also has the friendliest and most helpful staff I’ve yet encountered.

To get there, take the Hachikō exit out of the JR station and orient yourself so that you’re facing the Tsutaya building with the Starbucks café. Head down the left side of the big road passing to the right of this building (the 109 Men building will be on the other side of the road). In about a block the Seibu department store will be on your left. Turn left to pass in between the two Seibu buildings (there will be bridges above you). Go straight on that street until it splits at a kōban (police box) and take the right fork. The Mandarake will be a block down on the left side of the street, directly across from a Choco Cro café. You’ll need to go down several flights of stairs to reach the actual store. (For the record, there is another entrance into the store, but this is the one that leads directly to its dōjinshi section.)

While we’re on the topic of Shibuya, I should also mention the Tsutaya I referred to in the directions. In my opinion, this particular branch of the chain is the single best place to buy new manga in Japan. They have multiple copies of all the volumes of all of the latest manga in stock, and they have really cute displays created by the staff to highlight interesting and notable titles. This is the place to go to find out what is popular in Japan right now, and you can take to elevator down to the basement to do the same trick with video games before progressively working your way up through music, movies, and literature.

If you find yourself spending a lot of money, go ahead and apply for a T-Point card, which also works at Book-Off (and Family Mart convenience stores and Excelsior coffee shops, for what it’s worth). Book-Off is a chain of used book stores known for its ridiculously low prices and the excellent condition of its used merchandise. In essence, after using your point card for the first two or three volumes of a manga at Tsutaya, you can get enough points to get a used copy of the next volume for free at Book-Off. And speaking of Book-Off, the one across the street from the Shibuya Tokyu Hands is a manga lover’s paradise. They also have tons of used light novels, art books, and video game strategy guides that you won’t even find in Akihabara.


Nakano is a bustling, working-class shopping area a few stops out of the Yamanote loop on the JR Chuo line. The area is a bit out of the way of just about everything, but it’s home to Nakano Broadway, a rundown warren of manga stores and hobby shops. The top three stories of this indoor shopping complex are a hive of Mandarakes. If you have any sort of hobby related to anime or manga or video games, whether it’s cel collecting (fourth floor), cosplay (third floor), or researching Taishō-era children’s magazines (second floor), Nakano Broadway is where you go to spend all of your money. There are also tiny stores specializing in Ninja Turtles action figures from the nineties, old Japanese coins, and prayer beads and power crystals. There is even a Mandarake store called Hen-ya that, as its name implies, is a treasure hoard of the weird, baffling arcana of postwar Japanese pop culture.

From the JR Nakano station, take the north exit for Sun Plaza. Head around to your right past the turnstiles to exit the station, where you’ll see an open-air bus station in front of you. Beyond the bus station and to the right is the entrance to a shopping arcade called the Nakano Sun Mall, which is marked by yellow arches. Enter the shopping arcade and walk straight back all the way to the end to reach Nakano Broadway.

There’s nothing to see on the first floor, but you can take the escalator up to the third floor to reach the most awesome used manga store ever (run by Mandarake, of course). Whether you’re looking for editions of manga like Rose of Versailles from the eighties or the whole back catalog of a manga magazine like Monthly Cheese, they’ve more than likely got it stashed away somewhere. If you want to go straight to the dōjinshi stores, skip the escalator and take the stairs to the right of the escalator up to the second floor. Turn left from the stairs and then left again around the corner, and you should reach a dansei-muke store and a josei-muke store right across from each other a bit down the corridor.

Since Nakano is so out of the way, and since Mandarake keeps a lot of its excess stock up on the fourth floor, you can find old dōjinshi at these stores that have disappeared from just about everywhere else (such as those based on Harry Potter). The josei-muke store in particular specializes in anthologies, and you can strike real gold here if you don’t mind paying significantly more than the usual ¥210 – dōjinshi anthologies are huge and beautiful but can cost up to ¥5,000 (although ¥1,050 is more common). It takes a bit of work to get out to Nakano, and you’ll probably get seriously lost in Nakano Broadway, but it’s definitely worth the trip for a true treasure hunter.


All of the directions I have given take it for granted that you’re using one of the JR lines (such as the Yamanote-sen). Be aware that these directions may not apply if you’re using one of the Tokyo Metro lines (or another private line like the Keio-sen).

K-Books, Tora no Ana, and Animate all have point cards. These cards are free and allow you to accumulate points with each purchase. You can use these points to either take a discount off future purchases or to get limited edition goods that can only be bought with points. If you’re going to be spending a long time in Japan or are planning on spending a lot of money during a short visit, it might be worth your while to ask for one of these cards. (In the case of K-Books, you might want to just get one anyway, since they give you a choice of really cute, collectible cards.) You can just ask your cashier for a card at K-Books and Tora no Ana, but you’ll need to fill out an application form with your address in Japan at Animate.

All of the stores I have mentioned by name accept Visa and Mastercard. The only caveat about using a credit or debit card is that you may not be able to get points on your point card for that purchase. The policy on accumulating points for credit purchases differs from store to store (especially in Akihabara), but you shouldn’t have a problem anywhere in Ikebukuro.

Finally, if this guide has made you giddy with excitement, please consider investing in the book Cruising the Anime City. It’s a bit dated (just as this guide is probably going to be in a year or two), and it betrays a strong masculine bias, but it’s still awesome.

Short-Term Housing in Tokyo

This summer, I have found myself in the happy situation of looking for short-term housing in Tokyo. While poking around on the internet, I was surprised to find that no one has written a comprehensive guide in English on how to do this, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

I’d like to begin with an explanation of this guide. First of all, by “short-term,” I mean a period of time ranging from one week to three months – or the length of a short research trip. Second, by “in Tokyo,” I mean either on or inside of the Yamanote loop line. (My own searches have focused on the neighborhoods in central Tokyo close to the Imperial Palace and the National Diet Library.) Third, by “housing,” I am referring to furnished or semi-furnished apartments with utility fees included in the rent. All of these apartments can be booked online. Finally, what I’m writing is based on my own experiences as well as the experiences of my friends, who are mainly grad students; we’re not really tourists or back-packer types.

With all of that in mind, here are six options listed in order of the least expensive to the most expensive:

Sakura House

Many of the properties listed by Sakura House are closer to hostels than apartments. Furnishings are minimal, and kitchens and bathrooms are shared. The general floor plan is a suite with sizeable common areas and very small individual rooms. From what I have heard, the buildings are often run-down, and there are few windows and little natural sunlight. Sakura House has tons of rooms available for rent, however, and many of them are located near the large entertainment districts of West Tokyo, such as Shibuya and Ikebukuro. Also, the internet at these properties seems to be really quick and reliable, which is something of a luxury in Tokyo. Sakura House does have a few one-bedroom apartments with their own kitchens and bathrooms, but such apartments are significantly more expensive than they would be when rented from another realtor. If you don’t mind roughing it a little, Sakura House is convenient and affordable, and I have friends who swear by it.

Weekly Mansion Tokyo

If you’re traveling alone, Weekly Mansion Tokyo offers affordable studio apartments all around the Yamanote line, and they’re always offering significant discounts at multiple properties. These apartments are fully furnished and include their own kitchen, bathroom, refrigerator, and air conditioner. The problem is that they’re really, really small. Seriously, fourteen square meters is not enough room for an adult and her suitcase. The bathrooms are claustrophobic, and the only sink in the apartment is the tiny kitchen sink. Also, although internet is included, it is unreliable to the point of not really existing at all. Weekly Mansion Tokyo also charges more money for double occupancy rooms, but these rooms are usually not much bigger (around seventeen to twenty square meters), and the size of the bed is the same (ie, very small). Still, if you’re traveling alone and don’t plan on spending much time in your room, the properties of Weekly Mansion Tokyo are a convenient and affordable place to crash. If you’re traveling with a friend or partner, though, it makes more sense to look elsewhere.

Monthly Apartment Tokyo

The properties of Monthly Apartment Tokyo are clustered in two main areas: Roppongi/Azabu in southwest Tokyo, and Akasaka/Aoyama in center-southwest Tokyo. Unlike the properties of Weekly Mansion Tokyo, which are concentrated in east Tokyo, the apartments available from Monthly Apartment Tokyo are within easy access to the youth culture meccas of Shibuya and Harajuku. They’re also a bit bigger, more comfortable, and more reasonably priced for two people or people with families. Because greater discounts are offered for longer stays, I have known people who have spent entire years in Tokyo at one of these apartments. For obvious reasons, then, they tend to be reserved pretty far in advance (for which another discount is offered), so you’ll need to book an apartment here several months before you plan on moving in. The furnishings are rather basic, and I have heard that the internet comes and goes, but Monthly Apartment Tokyo seems to be the best value for a reasonable amount of comfort.

Furnished Apartment Tokyo

I don’t know much about these guys, actually. Their properties are all in center-southeast Tokyo next to landmarks like Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Disney, and Haneda Airport. The buildings are stark and unadorned, the furniture is like American college dorm room furniture, and the rooms are a bit bigger than they are at Monthly Apartment Tokyo. The bathrooms and kitchens seem to be a bit larger as well, with the kitchens having actual counters and the bathrooms having actual sinks. The real purpose of these places seems to be accommodating visits by the week, as the monthly rent (which starts at around 200,000 yen) could get you a much nicer and more conveniently located apartment elsewhere.

Space Design Serviced Apartments

These properties are beginning to toe the line of luxury, and really, they are fantastic. I learned about this realtor from a friend and her husband who spent a year in one of their apartments in central Tokyo, and their place was spacious, well-furnished, wifi-friendly, conveniently located, and in a really nice neighborhood. All of Space Design’s properties are non-smoking, and most of the rooms get gorgeous sunlight. Amenities include international cable television, linen service, and concierge service (which is important to someone like me, who likes to order used and out-of-print books in the mail). Unfortunately, the apartments tend to have shower rooms instead of baths, but most of them make up for it by including an in-room washing machine (which is rare elsewhere). Since the rate for these apartments is discounted according to the length of your stay, it makes more financial sense to stay here for at least two or three months. The staff is courteous and friendly, though, and they will make every effort to accommodate your preferences and budget.

Tokyo Apartments

The properties of Tokyo Apartments are about as good as it gets without renting a real luxury furnished apartment. They have apartment buildings all over Tokyo (although the properties in western Tokyo seem to be farther away from major train stations than those in eastern and central Tokyo). The apartments at these buildings are huge, gorgeous, and very nicely furnished. If you’re the sort of person who cares about such things, the bathrooms are particularly nice, and the kitchens are well-equipped. The customer service is impeccable, and I have heard nothing but nice things about them. Unfortunately, they’re also a bit out of my budget, with monthly rent starting at around 210,000 yen, which doesn’t include various fees for cleaning and excess utilities. I think that Tokyo Apartments, which is easily the most professional of all the realtors I’ve listed, is really geared towards business travelers; and, if you’re thinking of renting one of their apartments, it might be worth your while to ask about corporate discounts.


If you’re staying in Tokyo for longer than two or three months, you should probably consider renting a real apartment, which will be much cheaper and more comfortable in the long run. Unfortunately, doing this takes quite a bit of effort and usually a fair amount of time as well. If you’re planning on looking for an apartment yourself (instead of acquiring one through personal connections, which is the recommended route), it’s usually cheaper to book a week or two at a temporary apartment in the area instead of spending an indefinite number of nights in a hotel (or in a hostel, which can be just as expensive).

If you’re currently looking for housing in Tokyo, good luck! And please comment to let me know if you have any tips, or if I am missing anything important or misrepresenting any of these companies and their services.

Graduate School in Japanese Studies

Over the past several years, I have received numerous emails from people asking for advice about applying to graduate school. I have been skeptical of offering any such advice, primarily because the job market has been terrible but also because there has been an air of general malaise surrounding grad school recently. (The blog 100 Reasons Not To Go To Grad School expresses this attitude succinctly.) The more I reflect on my own experiences in grad school, however, the more I realize how valuable they have been to me both on an intellectual level and on a personal level. What I have learned in grad school has lead me to think about the world in an entirely different way, one that encourages diversity, critical thinking, and humanistic compassion. I have therefore decided to stop discouraging people and to instead offer my best advice to anyone thinking of applying to grad school for Japanese Studies:

(1) Spend a significant length of time in Japan before entering grad school.

Deciding to spend the next five to eight years of your life devoted to Japan is a big decision, after all. Some people go to Japan for the first time and realize that they hate it, and others suffer severe culture shock during their first sustained visit to the country. You don’t want to risk becoming one of those people after you’ve already enrolled in a graduate program. Ideally, you’ll spend at least a year doing dissertation research in Japan. This is a commitment that will be difficult to get out of when you realize, for example, that Japan is not vegetarian-friendly and that you can’t eat any of the food there.

Another reason to live in Japan before going to grad school is that it’s helpful to have personal and professional contacts who can help with both study and downtime when you return to the country for dissertation research.

(2) Make sure you know Japanese before applying to grad school.

By “know Japanese,” I mean that you should be able to pick up a book in your area of specialty and read it. You should also be able to translate at a reasonable pace and with reasonable accuracy without the aid of a dictionary. As part of your application to the more competitive programs, you need to be able to prove your language proficiency, either by publishing a translation, passing the JLPT, passing an oral exam, or going through one of the higher levels of a study abroad program like KCJS or the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies. Although doing your coursework in grad school will help improve your language, you won’t have time for rudimentary or refresher courses (for which you more than likely won’t receive credit anyway).

(3) You need to come to grad school with a clear idea of your dissertation topic.

The goal of graduate school is to get out as quickly as possible. You will most likely receive funding for an extremely limited period, and the funding you receive may not be able to cover the cost of living, especially if you don’t have a partner to help support you. Even if you don’t anticipate any financial difficulties, being in grad school traps you in the social role of a student, which seems fine when you’re 22 but becomes somewhat problematic by the time you’re 27.

You therefore need to make the most of the time you have by taking courses with the professors who will become your dissertation advisors and writing papers close to the topic of your dissertation. The best way to do this is to have a dissertation topic already in mind before you walk in the door. This topic will not be carved in stone, but you need to be specific. “The Tale of Genji” is not a dissertation topic. “Gender in The Tale of Genji” is not a dissertation topic. “Contemporary interpretations of homosocial relationships in The Tale of Genji as expressed in X, Y, and Z sources” is the beginning of a good dissertation topic.

(4) You need to be highly literate.

Even in the least competitive programs, grad school is a veritable orgy of reading and writing, and this reading and writing can occasionally be quite difficult. If you read less than forty or fifty books over the course of a year, you probably shouldn’t go to grad school. If you don’t know what a topic sentence is and can’t tell the difference between its and it’s, you definitely shouldn’t go to grad school. This isn’t elitism; it’s a matter of basic survival skills.

(5) You need to have thick skin and a hobby unrelated to your studies.

While you’re in grad school, you will be competing with some of the smartest people you’ve ever met. Each of these people will be better than you at something and know more than you in certain areas. Most of these people will be wonderful, but some of them will go out of their way to make you miserable. Likewise, your professors will hold you to a much higher standard than you dealt with as an undergraduate, and they will criticize your work accordingly. The majority of this criticism will be brilliant, insightful, and helpful, but some of it will be petty and downright vicious. On a broader level, you will sometimes be harshly rejected by fellowship committees, conferences, and academic journals.

As a student, you have no real power to combat any of this, so you need to have cultivated an attitude of friendly indifference and assertive self-confidence before you enter grad school. It is enormously helpful to have a hobby like biking, painting, or video games to clear your mind and help slough off any depression and anxiety that you may occasionally feel.


If I have made grad school seem like a daunting enterprise, that’s because it is a daunting enterprise and should not be entered into lightly. As I said at the beginning of this list, however, it’s also a wonderful experience that will change the way you think about the world and give you the potential to change the way other people think about the world. Grad school will equip you with a keen set of intellectual tools and serve as the gateway into a community of highly intelligent, interesting people. It is true that not everyone who enters graduate school graduates, and it is true that not everyone who graduates is able to become a professor. The statistics for employment and attrition rates may drive you away from graduate school, and with good reason. However, if you decide to go ahead and apply anyway, rest assured that the experiences you have and the friends you make will be well worth the trials and hardship you’ll encounter.