How to Learn Japanese through Anime

Even dolls learn Japanese through anime
Even dolls learn Japanese through anime

Can you really learn Japanese through Anime? Some people (usually people who are selling something) claim you can easily do so. Others (usually professional grumps) say, for various reasons, that learning Japanese from anime is an idiotic idea.

I am going to share my experience with you, and give you step-by-step instructions for what I have found to be the best method of learning Japanese through anime. Two points just to make matters clear:

• I am not selling anything. Everything you need for using this method is available free over the Internet. I am just sharing what I have learned by experience.

* This is not a get-fluent-with-no-work scheme. Everything about those schemes is wonderful except that not working doesn’t – uh – work.

Learning Japanese through anime is fun but it also takes a lot of effort and dedication. Don’t expect to kick back and enjoy a few episodes and become fluent in Japanese. That isn’t how it works.

For me anime has been a very important part of Japanese learning, though as a space-alien with special needs, my experience may not be applicable to everyone. However I suspect some of it might. So let me tell you how it was for me

I really, really really wanted to study the language properly. Never having gone to school I have learned everything I know – from the Earth’s history to a smattering of French and Spanish – in bits and bobbles that I picked up along the way (except typing which was taught to me by a charming alienophile). Japanese I wanted to learn properly; systematically; the way people do learn things (even where I come from).

I was kind of desperate to learn systematically but it just wasn’t possible. As a very ditzy wind-up doll alien (all right I am not really a wind-up doll, but I am an alien) I don’t have a systematic bone in my head. It wasn’t possible for me to attend a school, and I couldn’t find a teacher who would teach me systematically, or anyone who could/would give me even minimal advice on how to find one or how to go about it.

So it has been bits and pieces as usual. I certainly didn’t start to learn Japanese through anime. In a limping and lumbering way, with odd bits of help here and there and the messy doggedness of an unsystematic mind, I went through the first two basic books on Japanese (in my case Genki I and II with a few bits of Nakama I). I couldn’t even do it in order as my mind is so scattered, but I think everyone should probably struggle through that however uninstructed. Learning Japanese through anime can help a lot, but you really do need the basic grammar.

However, I had very little empathy with the books. I have never been to school or in business. I have never “dated” an alien (I mean an alien-to-me) or, come to that, anyone else. If someone talks about travel and train times or other practical arrangements in English to me, I need a translator. So all the things that are supposed to make such texts seem “real” and “relevant” to me put them into a world further removed from my own than many works of fantasy.

What has helped me a lot is learning Japanese through anime. Hee – yes, I have read the sites that grumble about how bad anime is for learning, so let me give you my view on the matter.

First of all, I agree that watching anime with English subtitles is next door to useless if you actually want to learn Japanese through anime. You can pick up the odd word that way. You can actually learn more than the odd word if you are very disciplined. At the very beginning of attempting to learn Japanese through anime I went extremely slowly through a few with English subbies trying to catch the Japanese, looking up words I thought I heard. Working seriously on why that noise ended up as that subtitle. That was somewhat helpful, but still not all that useful in my view.

I also tried watching with no subtitles. There is a school of thought that says “just try watching with no subtitles, let it wash over you and try to follow the story and eventually you will understand”. I don’t know what to say about that. It seems you would have to put in countless hours with no idea whether whether you were really learning Japanese through the anime or not.

I think that method (in conjunction with other study) might work for some folks. People learn differently. And I haven’t altogether given up on some version of it. But for me it isn’t the best way to learn Japanese through anime.

How to learn Japanese through Anime

What is the best way to learn Japanese through anime? Well I actually learned it from a native Spanish speaker whose English is truly excellent. She attends an English-speaking school in a Spanish-speaking country, and most of her classmates still speak abominable English. Hers is near-perfect. Well that is an understatement. Hers is far better than that of most current English speakers (which isn’t saying as much as it should be). She occasionally asked me how she could improve her English, and I would say (quite truthfully) “How much better than the average native speaker do you want to be?”

I asked her how her English got so good, and she said it was through watching English movies with subtitles – English subtitles. She said it was four years of continual watching before she could take the subtitle training-wheels off. But good heavens – those four years really paid off.

So that is the path I took in attempting to learn Japanese through anime. Now let me say from the start, it is a lot tougher for a European-language speaker to use Japanese subtitles than to use subtitles in another European language.

I am sure you know why already. The easy part is that it takes a long time to recognize kana quickly enough to just “read” as you would, say, Spanish because it is in two different “alphabets” (syllabaries if you want the correct word). The hard part is, of course, the kanji.

But don’t worry too much about that because this is the best way of overcoming the difficulties of learning to read Japanese. The kanji won’t stop you because with this method you can paste them directly from the subtitles into a dictionary. And even without this extra difficulty, until you are pretty advanced (and probably don’t need this article) you wouldn’t be gliding through anime at full speed with half an eye on the subbies.

You will be slowly and carefully stopping every few seconds to look up words and work out grammar. I told you that learning Japanese through anime is not a no-work shortcut. When I first started watching with Japanese subtitles it took me hours to watch a 20-minute episode. I am faster now, but it still takes a lot more than 20 minutes.

This is a good thing. You will learn a lot of vocabulary this way. You will also learn grammar. So if you want to follow my recommendation, here is what you will need:

1: Anime
2: Japanese subtitles (free). You can get subtitles for a lot of shows here.
3: VLC media player (free).
4: Aeigisub or other subtitle-editing application (free – needed for adjusting the timing. Not as difficult as it sounds).
5. Anki.

Anki is an important part of this system for learning Japanese through anime. What you need to do is watch anime in Japanese, with Japanese Subtitles. Go as slowly as you need to. At first you will need to stop several times at almost every speech. You will encounter a lot of new words. Look them up and enter them into Anki [you can now make a card with a single keypress using Rikaisama]. Anki is spaced repetition software (smart flashcards that know how well you know what you are learning and what is the optimal interval for repeating it (ranging from one minute to over a year) based on the brain’s learning patterns.

Work on your Anki every day in conjunction with your anime watching. You will learn a lot of vocabulary and you will find you very often remember the context in which you first heard it. This is an important aspect of learning Japanese through anime as it gives you a good understanding of how the word is actually used, and will also make it easier to remember. As you continue learning Japanese via anime you will encounter the same word again in different contexts. This will improve your understanding of the word’s range of meaning and implication and also make it increasingly easy to remember. That is how language acquisition works. Understanding and memory go hand in hand. The better you understand the better you will remember — and vice versa.

You should also be working on grammar. If you can’t see why those words add up to that meaning, try to find out. Also make a second Anki deck. Your first is vocabulary, your second is sentences. Enter example sentences with translation.

Maybe you are thinking this doesn’t sound like much of a fun way to learn Japanese through anime. Actually it is fun and you will find you get faster pretty quickly, which makes it more enjoyable. But it is work. It takes self-discipline and dedication. I watch my favorite anime by this method and part of my approach is to assume that Japanese is the only language. I put myself in the position of a child acquiring language. There isn’t some other language to fall back on. Either I understand it in Japanese or I don’t understand it.

Now clearly this is somewhat notional as I allow myself a Japanese-English dictionary. And what about English Subtitles? Often your anime will have English subtitles and (so long as they aren’t hard-coded, and they usually aren’t if it is a .mkv file) VLC will allow you to switch between the Japanese subtitles, the English subtitles and no subtitles.

Should one ever “cheat” and use the English subtitles? My suggestion is, not often. But if the level of dialog is ahead of one’s understanding it can sometimes be good to try one’s best to piece together what is being said and then use the English subtitles to verify/clarify. That way one may become aware of new grammar points. If the dialog is very much beyond one’s ability it can occasionally be useful to actually watch a few minutes with English subtitles and then use the Japanese ones and try to see why it meant what it seemed to be.

Two caveats here: 1. If it happens often, find a simpler anime. You are punching too far above your current weight. 2. Please bear in mind that English subtitles often aren’t exactly accurate translations of the Japanese. Often they put things in ways that are deemed more suitable for Western audiences. So please use English subtitles sparingly and with caution.

You are probably aware that some people strongly argue against the use of anime in learning. Some would argue that J-drama is much better. I have no strong view here for anyone but myself. You can find J-drama Japanese subbies and I imagine everything I have said about learning Japanese through anime would apply equally to dorama. Personally I have little interest in grown-up stuff, Eastern or Western; but that’s just this silly alien wind-up doll.

For the frequently heard objection that anime talk is not “natural” and one should not try to talk like an anime character, there are a few points to consider. If you use things like One Piece and Naruto, you probably will end up with some pretty odd (and often not very polite) Japanese. With kawaii anime like the various Precure series, a little common sense will tell you things like which characters use formal Japanese (e.g. Cure Beauty, Cure Rosetta), which use retiring or shy language (e.g. Cure Peace), Which speak particularly informally (e.g. Cure Marine), which speak in Kansai ben (e.g. Cure Sunny) etc.

Is their speech stylized and sometimes exaggerated? Yes. But the point to bear in mind is that your speech patterns will be far more influenced by the Japanese people you actually converse with than by fictional characters, and if you don’t converse regularly in Japanese you won’t really develop speech patterns at all. Neither would you have any use for them if you did.

Speech patterns are a different question altogether. We are talking here about using anime to learn how Japanese fits together, to build vocabulary, to see it in action, and to start using and enjoying Japanese.

Hard work and discipline are not the opposite of enjoyment (and if you think they are you need to learn the full cultural meaning of the word 頑張る ganbaru). You can do both at once  — enjoy watching, enjoy working, and really learn Japanese through anime.

Learning Japanese through anime, Phase 2!

4 thoughts on “How to Learn Japanese through Anime

  1. I loved the post. However, I’d have to say that it’s probably better to use kanji subs than english subs, even if you’re just starting out. You can find a list here:

    I’d suggest starting with something simple like Spirited Away before moving onto anything complicated. Slice-of-life anime is probably going to be the easiest while scifi and fantasy scifi should wait until intermediate levels. I’ve learned more Japanese this way in the last month than I have in the two months prior.

    I should probably mention that I also learned Spanish in a similar fashion. I went through the basics of grammar, but after awhile I just started picking up translated works, like Harry Potter (Audiobooks, movies, and ebooks). That, more than anything, gave me a functional command of the language.

    Unfortunately, Japanese is not so easy to read, so that’s why I stick to anime with kanji subs. Hopefully I can start reading in a year or two when I’ve learned enough kanji.

    1. Yes, I really think English subs are of extremely limited value for learning. It is a struggle to use Japanese subs at first but struggling through it really helps one’s Japanese. You can also load the subs into a word processor or dedicated subs editor, you can then copy unknown kanji from there into an online dictionary, which makes things a lot easier.

      Japanese is certainly harder than European languages to learn in this way (or any way that involves reading!), but I think it is one of the best ways to learn. I actually started with Karigurashi no Arietty (like Spirited Away, from Studio Ghibli). I find the Precure series very good. Probably simpler than Ghibli most of the time and there are subtitles for several series with over 40 episodes each, so a lot of material!

      And don’t forget subs are available for the new Sailor Moon Crystal series, so you can watch it practically as it airs.

  2. Finding this post this morning was probably one of the best things to happen to my Japanese learning journey this week. I tried watching simply without subs and it was just too overwhelming. I’d find that seconds later I’d register a phrase I just heard, but then I’d miss the present dialogue. It’s like I was constantly playing catch-up while watching. My mind is just not quick enough with Japanese yet to understand things automatically by ear without any words. Plus there’d be times where I’d *think* I heard something, but I couldn’t be sure of it without any textual confirmation.

    The Japanese subtitles made ALL the difference. I started with episode 1 of 日常 this morning and I was amazed at how much I was actually familiar with! でも、質問があります。.

    If I come across a sentence or phrase and I have maybe a 70 to 80% idea of what it means, but maybe there’s a word or two in it that I’m not sure of, how would I go about adding that to Anki? Would I just add the component words and study those on their own?

    Also as for phrases/sentences where I’m pretty much 95% sure of what it means, should I input the sentence (front) + my english interpretation (back) into Anki? That’s what I’ve been doing so far but I’m still a little scared of cementing a slightly inaccurate understanding. Also with all my Anki sentence cards, not just the anime ones, I’ve hardly even been looking at the english sentences anyway. I’ll glance at them occasionally but mostly I just try to get the “feel” for the sentence without doing any mental english translations besides for the first few times, and if I’m able to capture that “feel” again without looking at the english side, then I count it as correct. If that makes any sense.

  3. Japanese subtitles really help don’t they. I am so glad my passing on this method is helping you.

    There are a lot of different ways of using Anki and various opinions. Probably because people learn differently and everyone works out over time what works best for her.

    Personally I don’t use anime for Anki sentences (or very rarely, anyway). When I investigate new grammar from an anime I usually find example sentences in the big sentence mines (like Denki Jisho’s sentences) and my method (which I’ve written about) involves recognizing them aurally. If I have to look at the Japanese text I mark it “hard”.

    That’s just what works for me. And just a disclaimer that I am not using the more usual sentences method.

    However, to answer your question, I would say “yes”. If you are 70% to 80% clear what it means, I would say reinforce it with Anki. There is a bit of an excessive horror of mistakes around, it seems to me.

    Actually I would say that the danger of “cementing” mistakes is much less than people think. What actually happens is what happens with children learning language. You start by learning something imperfectly and later you hear something using the same grammar in a different context and you get another light on it. Your understanding grows. the limited understanding you had at first becomes a “hook” that makes it easier to remember. The whole experience of deepening and correcting your understanding is a valuable part of the learning process.

    I talk about this more in my introduction to our new forums (they are barely open yet so if you want to become an early member we would be delighted!).

    And yes, getting the “feel” for a sentence is good. That is also how children learn. Once you have a basis for understanding, provided you keep using Japanese, actively and passively, your “feel” will grow and grow into full understanding. And it is the organic way to do it.

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