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Reading Japanese: Part 1

By Eleanor Harz Jorden and Hamako Ito Chaplinn
Yale University Press, ISBN 0300019130

Reviewed by JM, a kanji learner


As an on-again, off-again student of Japanese living in the U.S. whose early (if foolhardy) goal was literacy in Japanese, I picked up Reading Japanese: Part 1 by Eleanor Harz Jorden and Hamako Ito Chaplin to augment my kanji studies. Reading Japanese, apparently conceived as an adjunct to the Beginning Japanese series (also from the Yale University Press) covers the kana and 425 kanji.

The genius of Reading Japanese is that it puts the characters--first katakana, then hiragana, then mixed kana and kanji--to use in drills and text samples that reflect real written "adult" Japanese as the introduction of characters allows. Reading and writing drills are presented in horizontal and vertical formats, with emphasis on the latter. The kanji used in the sample texts are cumulative and reflect the readerfs progress through the book..I found it very satisfying to make my way through the greading selections,h usually hand-written, some chatty and some rather dry-- letters armed with a newly conquered batch of kanji. Therefs even a rather comically dated selection of advertisements. The first time I used the book, it was my good fortune that the grammar and sentence structure used tracked nicely with what I was studying at the time. Helpful notes in English precede the reading selection.

The text begins by covering the katakana, followed by the hiragana. The authors very rightly put the katakana first, since they are less frequently used and thus the more easy to forget. I wish I had encountered them in this order from the start. I would have an easier time of doping out loan words now if I had. Each character is introduced in a traditional typeface, a nice big diagram with the stroke order, and a plain, hand-written version. Sample words and phrases put the characters into an immediate context, with sample compounds and place and family names.

My cavil with Reading Japanese is the continued inclusion of Jorden and Itofs very idiosyncratic romaji throughout the text. While itfs helpful very early on to have a guide to accent and syllable emphasis, that doesnft strike me as important enough to leave in what most students of the language agree is a crutch in the text.

As for the bookfs rather peculiar Romanization, the character is rendered as gtu,h as gti,h as gsi,h as gzi,h etc. The method isnft intuitive, and doesnft bear much relationship to how spoken Japanese sounds to this native English speaker: gSitih doesnft really work as /, for example. Itfs easy enough to dodge the offending hromazih in the character entries, but their inclusion in the otherwise wonderfully juicy, info-packed annotations tended to leave me a bit confused. Anyway, the book is Reading Japanese, not Speaking Japanese.

But these are small issues compared to the general excellence and usefulness of the book. For me there was such a sense of accomplishment and relatively rapid progress at the end of each chapter, no small feat for a not over-gifted adult student that I happily recommend this book. Therefs enough vocabulary, cultural and grammatical information to keep Reading Japanese stimulating for the beginning to intermediate student (though an update from the 1976 edition might be in order), and the appendices, notes, and annotations seem appropriately thorough. I plan to take up Reading Japanese: Part 2 very soon.