The Japanese Language Learner’s Shelf of Shame

If you have been studying Japanese for more than a year or two, it is likely that you, like me, have your very own Japanese Language Learning Shelf of Shame. Mine is large, so large I could hide behind it. But the time for hiding has come to an end.

What is a Japanese Language Learning Shelf of Shame? It is a humble bookshelf weighed down by magazines, books, and other nihongo resources that I shelled out good money for—sometimes with pricey overseas shipping—all in the hope of expanding my understanding of Japanese. In nearly every case, I failed in my goal. Instead of bringing pedagogic growth, these items only provide a few extra pounds that I must lift whenever I move to a new house.

The Shelf of Shame includes an assortment of English-Japanese dictionaries (and vice versa), grammar guides, and texts that list out essential vocabulary words and kanji. But most items consist of basic reading materials. There are a handful of Hiragana Times issues, a monthly magazine designed for Japanese-language learners. Even better than these are my copies of The Nihongo Journal, a now-defunct magazine series that is the gold standard among some Japanese students. Since I am a computer programmer in my day job, I also once purchased a magazine for developers, thinking I would have a leg up. My legs stayed on the ground.

My Shelf of Shame also contains various books, all published in Japan for native readers. Some of them are local finds that I added in my travels, including a book on the history of northern Japan that I never opened. I see my copy of  小さいことにくよくよするな! that pairs with Richard Carlson’s English-language Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and It’s All Small Stuff, my attempt to use a parallel-text approach to reading Japanese. I blame the translator.

I made a New Year’s pledge this year that I would finish a book on the Shelf of Shame before I bought something else. Two weeks ago, I broke that promise, which prompted me to craft this confessional article. The book I had been plodding through most recently was Mr.インクレディブル, the official Disney novelization of the Pixar movie The Incredibles.

That 200-plus page work was crafted for elementary and middle school students, and with my intermediate language skills (read: goals) and my familiarity with the movie, I thought it would be a breeze. It turned out to be a fairly difficult text. I don’t know if was because of the action focus or a desire to offer engaging reading material to students, but the book was loaded with what seemed to be every possible adjective in the Japanese language, modern or ancient. I gave up long before the introduction of the arch-villain Syndrome.

The book I bought to replace it targets the train-otaku community. The work called is 相鉄はなぜかっこよくなったのか (sōtetsu wa naze kakko yokunatta no ka, “Why Does Sōtetsu Look So Good?”), and it offers an introduction to the Sagami Railway, a local train system in and around Yokohama. I am not that into trains, but I have used this system a few times, and the book’s technical focus certainly appeals to my programmer mind.

I am already about twenty-five pages into the text, and so far, so good. It is a challenging work, given my language accomplishments to date. But I did find a new approach that is helping me get through the text with less angst than I had in previous attempts. I decided to read eight to ten pages at once, making a list of words and grammar points that are not familiar to me. After reviewing that list three or four times, I read the section once more, then move on without worrying if I retained anything. This low-expectation approach is new to me, but my hope is that with the isolated subject matter and the likelihood that the author will keep repeating the same terms and themes over and over again, I will be able to acquire some Japanese in a more passive manner.

Will it work? Given my history, I have limited expectations. But my Shelf of Shame is begging for relief. If I am ever to look at those earlier books with any level of comfort, I must stop sweating the small stuff and simply read.

[Image Credits: makoto.h/]

Tim Odagiri

Tim Odagiri is an author, software developer, and the host of Japan Everyday. He has published more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles covering technology, current events, and now life in Japan. Find his latest books at

1 comment

  • Tim, nice to know there are others with a “Shelf of Shame.” My favorite book in my SoS is a book about things to yell at a Hanshin Tigers game, definitely not kid-friendly in parts. How much have I retained from that book? Not much! 🙂

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