Book Review: Making Sense of Japanese by Jay Rubin

I have a lot of Japanese related books on my bookshelf, and Jay Rubin’s Making Sense of Japanese (2002) is one I have been meaning to read for some time. Well, I finally put some time aside to read it and I am glad I did.

Jay Rubin is an American academic and translator, who is probably most famous for his translations of Haruki Murakami’s works into English. Rubin intended this book for Japanese students who are just beginning to read native materials, as a way of helping them better understand the Japanese language.

The book is a series of short essays which each focus on an aspect of the Japanese language. The topics covered include:

  • は vs が
  • Verbs used for giving and receiving (くれる, もらう, あげる)
  • Passive form, causative form and the passive-causative form
  • から, わけ, のだ sentence endings
  • 知る vs わかる
  • ため
  • つもり
  • ある vs である
  • How to tackle Japanese sentences

Over the course of the book, he busts a few myths about Japanese and takes the view that Japanese is not actually a vague language at all. He makes an important point about pronouns – when it is obvious what the subject of the sentence is, the pronoun is omitted.

What I liked about the book

Near the start of the book is an explanation on は vs が, a particularly sore point for Japanese learners. I must say that this a particularly strong essay – not just because the subject matter is so important for understanding Japanese, but because I think the differences between the two particles are explained in a way that is easy to understand. This essay, along with most essays, is backed up with lots of example sentences to help illustrate his points.

The other essay that was a highlight for me was the one regarding how to tackle sentences in Japanese, particularly longer sentences that use plenty of relative clauses. The method Rubin describes is very similar to what I was taught when I formally studied Japanese and has been extremely useful to me ever since.

I feel that the book builds a strong case for why the grammar-translation approach can be effective in learning how to tackle reading in Japanese. His approach in these essays is highly focused on comparing Japanese and English and the nuances that learners need to be aware of when translating or simply trying to make sense of Japanese.

What I disliked

The main drawback of this book for me is the use of romaji. This might be a dealbreaker for some, but almost all Japanese in the book is written in romaji. At first, I thought that this might have been due to some sort of publishing issue, but then the last essay mixes romaji with kanji and kana when writing in Japanese. I found this a little bit distracting and felt that had the same sentences been written in kana (with furigana and romaji readings), I would have been able to understand them more easily. I know that the book is intended to be accessible to people with varying levels of Japanese, but the inconsistency in the use of romaji seems like a really odd choice to me.

With the book being a collection of essays, there are a couple that feel weaker than others. For example, there is a short essay which is about how being able to read something in Japanese does not automatically make it a good piece of writing. I think that this is a very valid point, but I couldn’t help but feel that this essay stood out as being less relevant and of practical use compared to the others. It was also the one which felt overly anecdotal

Overall thoughts

The book covers a range of topics that Japanese learners commonly struggle with, but are not covered in textbooks. I found his approach to these topics both informative and engaging, thanks to the relatively lighthearted tone of Rubin’s writing.

I highly recommend it to learners of Japanese who are at an upper-beginner level (about JLPT N4 or so), but I think learners at a higher level may also find it useful as a refresher due to the wide range of topics covered. I personally wish I had read this sooner, as there are quite a few things I could have learned from this book instead of from trial and error (nothing wrong with that of course!).

I don’t necessarily think this is a book that needs to be read from start to finish. The book is very short at just 130 pages, and most of the essays are pretty short. I think it makes a great reference book and you can always go back to read the essays that are most relevant to your current studies.

Have you read this book? What did you think? Let me know in the comments 🙂

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