Friday, March 31, 2023

Can You Learn Japanese with Anime?

WIP : this article is incomplete and might change in the unforeseeable future.

One question many weebs ask themselves is: can you learn Japanese with anime? Or: can you learn Japanese with manga? Or with light novels, visual novels, Japanese games, Japanese songs, Japanese dramas, etc.?

The answer is... yes, you can! Except you still have to study. If you work real hard and spend all your time reading raw manga in Japanese, you'll get really good at Japanese... found in raw manga, which is maybe all you wanted anyway.

In this article, I'll explain how it works, and provide some guidance to learn Japanese by consuming media.

About Language Acquisition

As with any skill (not in-game skills, real life skills), language you learn by doing. How good you are at Japanese is directly proportional to how often you use the language.

Only one problem: what we call "English" or "Japanese" isn't a single skill, but several skills grouped into one.

  • The skill to read the written language.
  • The skill to tell apart the words in the spoken language.
  • The skill to write the written language.
  • The skill to pronounce the words properly.
  • The skill to interpret the grammar properly.

Someone illiterate can't write, but they can still speak the language, while someone mute and deaf can't speak or listen, but can still write and read the language. It's clear that these are different things that everybody just normally learns all at once.

Furthermore, nobody learns the WHOLE language, for the language is used in several cultures at several time periods, one would have to belong to every culture in every time in order to know all of it. There's archaic language, there's legalese, there are dialects, etc.

There are lots of things that are technically "English" that someone who "speaks English" wouldn't be able to understand at first. Similarly, nobody knows all the kanji, for there are tens of thousands of them. The modern Japanese language only uses a few thousand.

"Yeah, I Speak Japanese" vs. Other Goals

Normally, what someone means by learning a language, by getting to the point they can brag "yeah, I speak X," would be having the skill to read, write, listen, and speak the standard dialect of the language, which kind of takes a lot of effort.

In order to acquire all these four skills you HAVE to do all of them: reading, writing, listening, and speaking the language, doing all this stuff, and for a long time until you get pretty decent at it.

By contrast, in order to read raw manga, you only need to be able to read Japanese, and then you're done. The same with light novels, web novels, visual novels, video games with text message boxes, books, magazines, tweets, written interviews, and so on.

In order to watch raw anime, you only need to be able to understand spoken Japanese, and then you're done. The same with Japanese dramas (doramas), songs, TV shows, virtual youtubers, news, video interviews, and so on.

You only need the "passive" skills to understand what's being conveyed. In order to convey things, you need the "active" skills, which are much harder to acquire.

Easy Mode Japanese

To understand what is being said you only need to have a gist of it and that's good enough most of the time.

Basic words tend to have dozens of meanings and uses, which ironically means that unusual words are easier to learn. For example, "mine," "date," "interest" are common words with multiple meanings, while "scrutiny" is an unusual word with a single meaning. If you don't know one of these and look them up in a dictionary, or search for other sentences with the same word, it's easier to figure out what scrutiny means because it can only mean one thing.

Consequently, there's a starting period where nothing makes any sense and dictionaries feel worthless, but once you reach a fundamental level of proficiency, you can understand most of what's being said, or at least have an idea of what's being said.

When actively writing or speaking the language, easy mode is disabled.

To construct a sentence, simply having a "gist" of what it's supposed to mean is never enough. Even if you manage to convey what you're trying to say, you'll still be speaking grammatically wrong, or at best unnaturally.

It's not good enough to know that "isn't," "aren't," and "am not" mean the same thing. You need to know which one is the grammatically correct one. You isn't? You aren't? They isn't? They aren't?

It's not good enough to know "isn't" and "ain't" mean the same thing. You need to know which is the most natural sounding one. Do you say "you are doing what?" or "are you doing what?" in this case?

Is this a "ship" or is it a "boat" or is it a "vessel"? Can you say you're going on a "date" with someone if it's just an appointment and not romantic at all? You need to describe someone based on some personal attribute, would it be offensive if you said it like this and how should you say it then?

All of these "ifs" that you never had to bother thinking about when you were just on the receiving side of correctly spoken language, you suddenly have to worry about when you are on the sending side trying to construct a proper sentence.

In conclusion, this means there's simply no way to learn the "I speak Japanese" level of Japanese simply by passively consuming Japanese media. The most you can learn by only reading Japanese is the skill of reading Japanese. By watching anime, you get good at watching anime.

And there's more.

You may be wondering how come babies learn Japanese passively while weebs can't seem to learn any level of Japanese despite watching subtitled anime all the time.

Well, disregarding the fact that they're more focused on the English subtitles than the Japanese audio for a moment, babies end up using the language themselves. They speak their baby Japanese language. But weebs never have anyone to speak Japanese with.

Being able to use the language properly reinforces what you know about it, so if you want to get very good at Japanese, even if just for consuming media, you need to be able to use the language yourself, and that requires practice, which means talking to someone in Japanese about something.

So you can't even get that good at consuming Japanese by just consuming the media, because you'll never be sure what you think you know is really right until you try to use the language yourself. Just a thing to keep in mind.

Tools & Guidance

In case you want to learn Japanese with anime, and need some pointers, here are them.

The Absolute First Step to Learn Japanese

Familiarize yourself with the Japanese "alphabets," how Japanese is written, and go learn the kana 仮名 (hiragana ひらがな and katakana カタカナ), which are the building blocks of Japanese both written and spoken.

There's hardly any point trying until you know the kana. Some resources and courses may use romaji ローマ字, which means writing "Kōkaku Kidōtai" in the Latin alphabet instead of 攻殻機動隊.

This romaji is merely a way to encode the kana, such as that it's not possible to write a correct romaji that doesn't have a kana equivalent. It adds a whole middle step which has its own arcane system of rules without providing much value to actually learning Japanese.

ka ku ki ta i
ko u ka ku ki do u ta i
"Attack" "Husk" "Maneuver" "Unit"
(From 甲殻こうかく, ateji wordplay.)
"Riot Squad"
Ghost in The Shell

It's useful when you are teaching an audience that doesn't know the kana yet and want to teach some basic grammar in limited time. Then you need SOME way to represent that Japanese that they could read, and that's romaji. You know, like I'm doing right now.

But as a learner, YOU shouldn't bother learning Japanese with romaji. You should focus on learning the kana first. By learning the kana you learn virtually all possible sounds of the Japanese language, and implicitly you learn some rules about how words can and can't be constructed.

A lot starts making sense. Pretty much every resource about Japanese you'll find assumes you know the kana. Japanese material for children who don't know kanji still assume they know the kana. So kana is the bare minimum that helps not only with reading but with listening too.

There are various ways to learn it. Some do it by handwriting the kana. Handwriting is also a separate skill. In this digital world, people tend to handwrite less. If you skip handwriting the kana, and then kanji afterwards, there may come a time where you'll miss a joke because it only lands on people that have experience handwriting Japanese. But that's about it. You don't need to handwrite if you don't want to.

Some people prefer to learn with Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS). These are several apps for learning the kana out there (e.g. Hiragana-chan). In these systems, you're shown a question once, and try to answer, and the more you answer it correctly the fewer times you're asked it, so you would literally get shown the same character dozens and dozens of times until you memorize it.

It's worth noting that it's not possible for a native English speaker to tell how to pronounce a Japanese syllable correctly just from the romaji. If you choose a SRS app that doesn't have audio, ONLY romaji, then you'll mispronounce every syllable even if you memorize the romaji perfectly.

This isn't much of a problem, however, because as you start learning the words in Japanese, there will be some you may recognize from media you consume, and you'll know how they're supposed to sound, so EVENTUALLY you'll figure out their correct pronunciation.

Do note that to speak Japanese you'll have to train pronouncing the words out loud, preferably with feedback from someone. Many people have trouble pronouncing the R's, e.g. the word "raposa" ("fox") in Portuguese sounds close to ha-po-za はぽざ in Japanese.

Japanese uses many English loan words (gairaigo 外来語), a concerning amount of, to be honest, so you'll often come across Engrish such as reberu appu レベルアップ, "level up." In these cases, it may be tempting to pronounce the English word "level up" instead of whatever abomination reberu appu is supposed to be. If you do this, however, you'll be speaking English, not Japanese. The Japanese word is reberu appu.

Some of these Engrish words have meanings unique of Japan, or simply don't exist outside of Japan, e.g. sukinshippu スキンシップ, "skinship" (the idea you can become more friends with, i.e. bond with someone, by having more physical, skin-to-skin contact with them) isn't an English word, but an "English word made in Japan," wasei-eigo 和製英語.

Whatever means you choose, you need to learn the kana. Some people say they took days, others say they took months. Are they geniuses or just have a lot of free time? Who knows.

How to Type Japanese

To type Japanese in the computer you need a program called an IME (Input Method Editor). Windows comes with Microsoft IME, and Google offers their own IME, too, which you can just Google, download, install, and then it records what you type by default and sends it to Google unless you disable that in the settings. I'm sure there are other alternatives as well.

Although this sounds complicated, you'll need to setup this eventually if you want to look up words in Japanese.

There are two ways to type Japanese: typing a flavor of romaji called waapuro ワープロ (from "word processor") which is converted to kana, which can then be converted to kanji; or typing the kana directly which is then converted to kanji.

Using the latter is particularly complicated without a Japanese keyboard because you'll have no idea which keys represent which kana. Also, even in Japan the romaji mode is preferred, since you have fields where you can't type Japanese, e.g. e-mail addresses can only contain alphanumeric characters.

Anime: KADO: The Right Answer, Seikai suru Kado 正解するカド (Episode 1)
  • Context: someone types a date.
  • Heisei ni...
    Heisei era, year 2...
  • *backspace*
  • ni-sen-juu-nana-nen shichi-gatsu ni-juu-go-nichi
    25 of July of 2017. (also known as Heisei year 29).

Above, you can briefly see a H and S before he types an E. Once typed, the syllables are converted to the kana he へ and se せ by the IME.

Sometimes you have a word with several homonyms, and then you get to pick the appropriate spelling from a list.

Typing a swastika, manji 卍, in Microsoft IME.
  • Context: typing manji in Microsoft IME.

With smartphones, you would need to install the Japanese keyboard, which is probably hidden in the settings in some arrow icon on a corner, depending on what you're using. And then the keys become in a layout based on the gojūon table, where you first select the row, then the column to type a syllable.

ケンカ 人数 多い ちょっと待てや 今ググってるから
Manga: Gokushufudou 極主夫道 (Chapter 8)
  • Context: Masa 雅 finds himself surrounded, pulls out his smartphone.
  • kenka, ninsuu, ooi
    ケンカ  多い
    Fight, number-of-people, many.
  • chotto mate ya, ima gugutteru kara
    ちょっと待てや 今ググってるから
    Wait a bit, [I] am googling right now.

How to Acquire Vocabulary

There are mainly two ways to acquire Japanese vocabulary: either you learn the words as you need them, by looking them up in a dictionary as you go, or you memorize them beforehand using vocabulary lists or SRS.

Most language learning apps you can find, such as Duolingo, WaniKani, Renshuu, Anki, and so on, are SRS-based. Some of these use question-answers that are based on dictionary entries, which is rather problematic since dictionaries aren't very good at teaching random words without context.

As you acquire vocabulary, how you acquire vocabulary may change. For example, you could go through the following three stages:

  1. You don't know any words at all, so it's more efficient to learn some words from vocabulary lists and SRS than try to read something. In particular because many similar words are taught in groups, e.g. numbers, words for weekdays, months, and so on.
  2. Once you know enough basic words, SRS will start giving you random words that you're unlikely to ever encounter, e.g. political terms, disease terms, and so on. It becomes more efficient to read and use a dictionary.
  3. Once you know most words you encounter in text, the rate you learn goes down because you become less and less likely to encounter a word you need to look up in the dictionary. SRS becomes a good idea to fill gaps in your vocabulary you could have from consuming certain types of texts over others.

One pitfall of software-based SRS is that it may assign you a number of questions (or "cards") to do in a single day, a quota, and questions you do not answer will accumulate for you to do on the next day. Which means if you had 50 questions to do, and you miss one day, you'll have 100 to do the next.

Learners that use SRS strive to keep a perfect record and clearing all questions every day, until they eventually fail for some reason. Then you may end up feeling you only HAD to do this chore because you had a perfect streak, and now that you lost the streak you suddenly lost all your motivation to do answer these boring memorization cards.

One way to avoid this scenario is by setting a very small number of cards to do. A number you can do with ease, very quickly. It may feel like you aren't learning much, because you aren't, however, it's not how many cards you do in one day that will matter, but your ability to keep learning new words every day for a very long period of time. If you learned one kanji per day, it would take five years to learn the 2000 of them that are normally used. Surely you could try 10 per day and finish it in a year, but if you feel burned out and stop studying because of it that would be a step back. In any case, keep in mind that this will take longer than one year at least, because it's a lot to learn, so hurrying won't help much.

Using Google Translate

Avoid using Google Translate and similar automatic translation software. There are some cases they can be useful if they manage to give you the correct translation for a sentence, but generally speaking they won't be useful.

Japanese is pretty ambiguous and the orthography can be all over the place, so it's very easy to come across a sentence that a software can't translate correctly. These are problems that don't exist in Spanish to English, for example. The software will have to make some baseless assumptions about what the sentence means, and you probably don't want to learn from these assumptions.

Even for single-word translations, it won't be as good as a dictionary.

Using a J-E Dictionary

With a Japanese-English dictionary you can look up potential English meanings a Japanese word may have. There are various free J-E online dictionaries out there, such as

Do note that making an entire dictionary is a huge task. The website jisho isn't actually behind its dictionary. Instead, the dictionary is a project called JMdict. Anyone can contribute to this dictionary's database, and anyone can download it and use in their own projects. So you may find other online dictionaries out there, or browser extensions, etc., that all use this same database so they all have the same results when you search for something.

In a J-E dictionary, you look up a Japanese word, such as kasei 火星, and it will show you what it means, e.g. "Mars." Simple enough. Except when it's not.

Some words have multiple senses, multiple meanings. For example, mimi 耳 means "ear," the body part, and it can also mean the "crust" of bread or pizza, among other things. So at least two different senses: ear, and crust. Sometimes it means ear, sometimes it means crust.

On the other hand, sometimes you have a single sense that could potentially be translated in several ways, several glosses. For example, kanjou 感情 has one sense glossed as "emotions," "feelings," and "sentiment." This doesn't mean kanjou has three meanings, it means whoever wrote the dictionary could imagine it being translated as any of these three similar glosses, so they listed all three of them for the sake of reference.

Sometimes a word's different meanings are associated with completely different syntax. For example, hon 本 means "book" when it's a noun, but when it's used as a prefix it means something close to "this," e.g. honsha 本社, "this company," honkou 本校, "this school," honjitsu 本日, "this day/today," and when it's used as a counter it counts long, cylindrical objects, e.g. go-hon no tsurugi 五本の剣, "five swords." It's not possible for one sense that only applies in one of these cases to occur in the other, so it's worth paying attention to that, i.e. hon 本 never means "this" or "cylindrical thing" when used as a noun.

Some nouns can also be used as verbs (suru verbs), in which case the verbal gloss will be strangely missing from the dictionary. For example, kekkon 結婚 will appear only as "marriage," even though kekkon suru 結婚する translates to "to marry (to do a marriage)."

One last thing to pay attention to is the transitivity of verbs. Sometimes you'll come across words like kooru 凍る, "to freeze," and koorasu 凍らす, "to freeze," or narabu 並ぶ, "to line up," and naraberu 並べる, "to line up," and you'll see that they mean the same thing for some reason. The reason is that one of them is transitive (I froze the water) while the other is intransitive (the water froze). This is the same idea as "to raise" and "to rise" in English. English verbs like "to freeze" that can have either transitivity are called ergative. Japanese seems to have very few of these. Instead, most of the time you'll have ergative verb pairs in Japanese, where there's one word that means the thing transitively, and another word that means it intransitively.

Using a J-J Dictionary

One major language learning goal is to stop using a J-E dictionary and start using a dictionary made by the Japanese, for the Japanese, in which the meaning of Japanese words is explained entirely in Japanese.

A J-E dictionary doesn't really explain what the words mean, it merely contains potential translations for the word, which suffices most of the time.

A J-J dictionary, on the other hand, will explain a lot. It may contain, for example, the etymology of the word, synonyms that mean exactly the same thing, archaic uses, and all sorts of notes. Sometimes there's more information than you need or want, but it's there for you to read.

J-J dictionaries aren't limited to general word dictionaries. Both Pixiv and NicoNico host pop culture dictionaries that explain anime-related terminology such as zettai ryouiki 絶対領域, moe-sode 萌え袖, and so on. You may also come across some niche glossary eventually that may contain obscure terms a J-E dictionary wouldn't have.

Learning Japanese with Just Grammar Resources

One mistake beginners make when learning Japanese, and likely other languages as well, is to start by picking some grammar resource such as books, apps, and blogs, and keep reading that resource until they feel confident enough in their skills to try to read something in real Japanese.

It's true that you do need to learn a lot of basic grammar in order to understand even the simplest sentences, because there are many "basic grammars" (e.g. past sentences, negative sentences, passive sentences) and any random sentence can have any of them, so you need to know them all.

However, you should try to read something in real Japanese at first, even if a mere tweet, even if you can barely understand what it means or have a lot of trouble reading it. Just for the sake of experience.

That's because WAY TOO MANY of a beginners' first questions can be answered by just literally taking a glance at how Japanese is actually used.

The Japanese you end up learning is some sort of laboratory Japanese, a language in theory, while the questions will be about the use of the language in practice. You'll be just like those kids in those sci-fi post-apocalyptic anime born and raised in a sheltered arcological orphanage making pesky questions about the probable existence of a world outside the walls.

Learning Japanese with Books without Kanji

Some books aimed at very small children do not contain any kanji and words are separated by spaces, not unlike how they are in English. Do not read these.

The allure of not having to deal with kanji may make you feel like they're going to be useful, but they're really just troublesome in ways you don't realize. For example:

「ライアンどの。たたかいで キズついたら まちにもどり やどに とまるといい。
Game: Dragon Quest IV, Doragon Kuesto Foo ドラゴンクエストIV
  • "Raian-dono. tatakai de kizu tsuitara
    machi ni modori yado ni tomaru to ii.

    「ライアンどの。たたかいで キズついたら
    まちにもどり やどに とまるといい。
    Ryan-dono, if [you] get injured in battle
    it's good if [you] return to town and stay at an inn.
    • In classic JRPGs, sleeping at an inn heals injuries. So it's good for you to go there and get the damage healed.

Due to the technical limitation of not being able to fit all the kanji in a tiny ~256kB NES cartridge, old games also had text written this way. Observe above how 戦いで傷ついたら街に戻り宿に止まるといい was spelled without any of these complicated Chinese characters.

Now, although this may sound weird, it's generally easier to read Japanese when it's written with kanji than when it's written without.

That's because there's a regular dichotomy between what's written with kanji and what's not. What gets written with hiragana are the more grammatical things: particles, inflections, and basic words, so what's written with kanji is typically none of these.

When both are written with hiragana, it gets harder to tell them apart. For example, 街に戻り is a word (街), followed by a particle (に), followed by a word with an inflection (戻り). If you spell it まちにもどり, it's not immediately clear whether まち comes before a ni に particle or a nimo にも particle, because mo も is no longer a kanji.

Worst of all, this way of writing Japanese is highly unusual. It doesn't prepare you to read normal Japanese, so, like romaji, it's kind of a waste of time because it's a layer with its own complexities that doesn't help you learn the real thing.

Learning Japanese with Manga

To learn Japanese with manga you should seek manga with furigana 振り仮名. These are the reading aids beside kanji which show how the word is meant to be read.

Typically, manga with a school demographic, shounen and shoujo, will have furigana everywhere, under the idea the audience is still learning the kanji in school. Meanwhile, manga targeted at older audiences won't feature kanji.

魔人パワーの外出を許可します 17時までには戻ってくるように!
Manga: Chainsaw Man, チェンソーマン (Chapter 6, 使役)
  • Context: a demon under custody is allowed to go outside.
  • majin Pawaa no gaishutsu wo kyoka shimasu
    [I] permit the going-outside of the demon Power. (literally.)
    [I] permit the demon Power to go outside.
    (performative utterance.)
  • {juu-shichi-ji made ni wa modotte-kuru} you ni!
    [Make sure] {to come back before seventeen hours}.
    You must return before 5 PM.
    (incomplete sentence.)

Above, we see words like majin 魔神まじん and gaishutsu 外出がいしゅつ have furigana, because Chainsaw Man is a manga for kids serialized in Shounen Jump.

Meanwhile, a manga targeted at adult audiences wouldn't have furigana, becoming much harder to read:

ここはすごいなー あれもこれも欲しい物たくさんー 八十五万七千百二十円になります
Manga: Hinamatsuri ヒナまつり (Chapter 1, 超能力少女現る)
  • Context: a daughter goes shopping.
  • koko wa sugoi naa
    This place is amazing, [huh]~
  • are mo kore mo {hoshii} mono takusan~
    This, that, [there are] lots of things [that] {[I] want}~
  • *anxious sweating*
  • {hachi-juu go-man nana-sen hyaku ni-juu en ni} narimasu
    [It] will be {857120 yen}.

There are some exceptions, specially with older manga lacking furigana or having furigana only partially (e.g. JoJo), but generally you'll want to read a manga with shounen or shoujo demographic.

Also, although it's a commonly recommended as a first manga, I don't think it's a good idea to start with Yotsubato! よつばと!

In most manga, the way a character speaks, and thus what's literally written in their text balloons, represents the sort of character they are. Characters that are small children, like Yotstuba, tend to have their text written without kanji, which is unusual, but it gets problematic if they pronouncing a word in an unusual way (which kind of happens often), since there will be no kanji to help you figure out what they could possibly be saying.

It's also a good idea to avoid manga with lots of puns or weird humor, since you won't be able to tell if you can't understand it because you misunderstood a word, or because it's a joke and you lack the fluency to understand, or because it's Japanese humor and you just don't get it at all.

Looking Up Words in Manga

With manga with furigana and the ability to type Japanese in the computer, looking up words is as easy as opening a dictionary and typing exactly how the word is said to be pronounced, although there are some exceptions..

For example, if the furigana is まじん, you just type まじん and the computer will convert it to appropriate 魔神 kanji, and then you can look that word in an online dictionary like to figure out what it means.

This won't be really helpful, however, without learning some basic grammar first, but just by doing this you'll be able to read a few pages of raw manga in no time, and it's all downhill smooth sailing from there.

Words Without Furigana

For words without furigana, there are a few approaches you can try.

You can look up the character by radical or component. Physical kanji dictionaries index kanji by a single component called their radical, while online dictionaries take the same approach but are more flexible since you can look up any part of the kanji. For example, if you see 好, you could find it by searching for the component 女 or 子, but in a physical dictionary it would be indexed by 女, next to other kanji that share that same radical.

You can try handwriting the kanji in some handwriting recognition software. Both Jisho and Google translate offer such tool. Google, as one would expect, is much better at doing this, so if there's a kanji you really find by component, maybe try handwriting it in Google translate.

Finally, you can try an OCR (optical character recognition) software. It will probably perform good on fonts, but not very good on handwriting or weird fonts that you sometimes come across.

Wrong Furigana

Sometimes you may encounter a word whose furigana doesn't actually match the kanji it's right next to. Do not panic. This is normal. So normal there's a name for it: gikun 義訓. And it's there to make your life hell to make manga 20% cooler.

Essentially, authors sometimes use the reading aid space of furigana to write all sorts of random words to give a second meaning to phrases. When this happens, you're supposed to pronounce the way it's spelled in the furigana, and the "normal" text is simply a secondary meaning to what the character is saying.

A common case are deistic pronouns like "this," "here," "that time," "that person," "now," and so on being written in the furigana, and the normal text having a more concrete word for what the pronoun refers to.

今夜も時化る 病院(ここ)は奴らの巣窟だ 神器もいない今長居は無用
Manga: Noragami ノラガミ (Chapter 2, 家猫と野良神と尻尾)
  • Context: Yato 夜ト, who is a God fighting spiritual beings related to human's negative feelings, goes to the hospital make a visit to someone, and says:
  • kon'ya mo shikeru
    Tonight, too, will be stormy.
    • shikeru - for a sea to be stormy. The series is based on Buddhism, using terms like shigan 此岸, literally "this shore," and higan 彼岸, literally "that shore," refer to "this world (of the living)" and "that world (of the dead)," respectively. Consequently, saying "the sea will be stormy" implies those from that world will come to this world in a more chaotic manner.
  • (koko) byouin wa yatsura no soukutsu da
    (This place) the hospital is their lair.
    • koko ここ, "here," "this place" is used as reading for byouin 病院, "hospital," because "here" is "the hospital," that's where the character was when he said that.
  • {shinki mo inai} ima nagai wa muyou
    Now [while] {[I] don't have a regalia}, a long-stay is unnecessary.
    • shinki 神器, literally "divine instrument," also translated to "regalia" in English, refers weapons to fight spiritual beings. Since these weapons are actually other characters that transform into weapons, and not just objects, the animate existence verb iru 居る was used instead of the inanimate aru 在る.
    • The temporal noun ima 今, "now," is qualified by a relative clause in this sentence.

Phonetic Orthography in Dialogues

Sometimes in manga, LNs, VNs, games, and so on, a character's dialogue is written in a way that spells out literally how they're pronouncing the words, which sounds great, until you realize this means you can't look up these words in a dictionary because it won't be spelled in the way the word is spelled in the dictionary.

This typically happens when the ~i ~い copula of i-adjectives gets merged with the preceding syllable, forming a contraction that doesn't even resemble a textbook i-adjective.

こ・・・こえー・・・・・・ ・・・・・・こえー・・・
Manga: Yotsuba to! よつばと! (Chapter 1, よつばとひっこし)
  • koee こえー
    kowai 怖い

Examples include: kowai 怖い becoming koee 怖ぇ, tsuyoi 強い becoming tsuee 強ぇ, warui 悪い becoming warii 悪ぃ, etc. As you can see, although it's not obvious, the pronunciation "inside" the kanji changes.

See List of Japanese Contractions for many, many, MANY other unsearchable examples.

These unusual pronunciations are typically hinted by a small kana being used at the end of the word, so if you're aware they exist, you can search for the kanji (怖, 強, 悪) and see if there's an i-adjective that works in the sentence, and that's probably going to be enough. Naturally, it gets harder if there's no kanji in the word.

Sometimes a small tsu is inserted to express stress, e.g. sugoi すごい being spelled suggoi すっごい, or suggggggoi~~! すっっっっっごい~!

The prolonged sound mark (ー), including its fancy-looking wavy form (which looks like a tilde ~), is also sometimes added to words pronounced unusually.

Manga: Historie, ヒストリエ (Chapter 8, スキタイ流)
  • baaaaakka janee no!?
    Aren't [you] stuuuuuupid?
    • Same as baka janai no? 馬鹿じゃないの?

Learning Japanese with Web Manga

If you need some manga in Japanese to read and you're having trouble acquiring it since most stores do not sell manga in Japanese, you can try reading a manga in the web instead.

Nowadays, there are several services that publish online professional manga that would traditionally be serialized in paper.

For example, you can read the shounen manga Chainsaw Man on Shounen Jump's online platform, Shounen Jump Plus, for free (if you're reading the latest chapters), or for a fee if you want to read older chapters.

  • At time of writing, CSM is split into two parts. Part 1 ended around chapter 100, and its chapters all cost a fee. Part 2 has around 30 chapters published, the latest few available for free. The platform's website design lists latest chapters first and includes thumbnails, which means if you haven't read this series you'll be SPOILED (links: Part 1, Part 2).

Similar systems are employed by other magazines, e.g. One Punch Man is published on Tonari no Young Jump (

Two screenshots of an online manga reader showing two consecutive pages of a manga.
Website:, accessed 2021-05-13.
Manga: One Punch Man, ワンパンマン (Chapter 1)
  • Context: pages 4 and 5 of a manga chapter of 28 pages. Observe that the panel that would spread across both open pages in a physical book gets cut in half due to the screen size being too narrow. Due to Japanese being read right to left, the slider at the bottom, too, starts at the right, and the number becomes greater as it slides to the left side.

These two examples are manga originally designed to be published in paper, with proper print dimensions, available through the web. There is another type of manga that's designed specifically for web, most often specifically for mobile devices, which we'll call "web manga."

Instead of having printable, flippable pages, a web manga is just one extremely tall image (or a series of images stacked vertically for technical limitations), and you read it by just scrolling down and down and down until you reach the end of the chapter. The panel composition is also done with the idea that the user will scroll downward in mind, e.g. by using vertical gradients and a seemingly endless stair-like series of dialogue boxes.

One website that handles them is Although they're rather novel, they're still professional manga, with some of them having anime adaptations (e.g. Net-juu no Susume ネト充のススメ).

Do note that these works are made primarily for the web, as such their business model is different.

With printable manga, they can make money selling physical volumes (tankoubon 単行本, sometimes called "tanks"), which come with exclusive bonuses (omake おまけ) at the start or end of the volumes, which are not published in the serialization whether physical or online. The tankoubon contains a number of already-published chapters, so the idea, presumably, is that you can access the newest chapters for free because it's not possible to purchase a tankoubon with them yet, and even after you have read these chapters for free, you would still buy the tankoubon because of the exclusive bonuses, or just because you want to support the author.

With web manga, since it's designed to be read with a browser, selling a printed tankoubon isn't a choice, so their business model does the opposite: the first chapters tend are available for free to attract customers, and to continue reading the series you'll have to pay. If you want to read them, you might want to make sure that you're actually able to pay for the credits you'll have to use to read before you become too emotionally attached to some romcom's love triangle. That is, there's no guarantee that a website designed for Japanese users supports a payment processor that you can use from whatever country you are from, or that they will have customer support service you'll be able to communicate with if trouble arises.

Besides these, you can also read manga and doujinshi 同人誌 on art platforms like Pixiv and find them posted on social media such as Twitter by the artists themselves. It's not a good idea to start with these, however, since they're unlikely to contain furigana, and likely to contain weird fonts or handwriting that will be an extra hurdle to read.

Learning Kanji with Automatic Furigana Software

There are many websites, browser extensions, and other computer-based tools that aid in learning Japanese by adding popups that show the reading of words in furigana or romaji, and/or their meaning through a dictionary look up.

Although they can be useful, and some are linked in this article, be wary of them.

It's technologically VERY DIFFICULT to simply NOT POSSIBLE to algorithmically figure out the reading of a kanji. Without figuring out the correct reading, it's also not possible to figure out which WORD it's written, and without figuring that out, it's not possible to automatically translate a sentence.

In other words, do not assume that the automatic furigana or translation is going to be correct. It's potentially wrong. Prefer reading material that comes with furigana, written by a human being, preferably the same human being that wrote the kanji in first place..

Learning Japanese with Light Novels

Trying to learn Japanese with light novels is not a good idea due to the simple fact it's a hassle to look up words, and you'll have to do that a lot.

Light novels have way more text than manga, and the way it's written is also completely different from manga. You'll have more text describing things rather than dialogues.

You could try to do it using the same means as explained above for manga: looking up words by their furigana, using OCR, etc. But if you don't have a particular LN that you really want to read, there might be a better idea.

Learning Japanese with Web Novels

Many light novels have their beginnings as web novels posted on the internet, as text web pages that are easy to copy paste and search on online dictionaries, and, in particular, that can be enhanced by browser plugins that instantly look up words in said online dictionaries.

The most popular website where such web novels are posted is called Shousetsu-ka ni Narou 小説家になろう, "let's become a novelist" ( Typically referred to as simply Narou なろう in both English and Japanese, e.g. narou-kei なろう being a way to refer to the "sort" of author or novel posted on the site.

There you can find, for example, Kumo desu ga, Nani ka? 雲ですが、なにか? ( among with several other isekai WNs that were adapted into anime afterwards.

An example of plugin that can help you look words in such websites is rikaikun (a Chrome port of rikaichan, which was made for Firefox). Another one is yomichan.

Learning Japanese with Anime

When learning Japanese by watching anime, one important thing to keep in mind is that you shouldn't use the anime subbed (dubbed also doesn't work, but for different reasons).

If the anime has English subtitles, or subtitles in your native language, your attention will be divided between parsing the Japanese audio and the English text, and the subs will be easier to parse, so you'll just unconsciously pay more attention to that instead because humans are some lazy bags of meat.

Learning with audio is much harder than learning with written text and furigana because the spelling of the words will not be written out for you. If you hear a word and you don't know what it is, there's no quick way to look it up in a dictionary if you also can't tell which syllables it's spelled with.

In particular, it's a very bad idea to start learning with pure audio right away.

Sure, teachers may be quick to use spoken Japanese in classroom settings, but the teacher is there, so if there's any question they can answer. It's completely different from trying to guess what a character is saying in Japanese and there being no one to tell you whether you guessed right or not.

Some syllables are pronounced different from what you would expect from the text, e.g. su す in desu です, "to be," tasukeru 助ける, "to help," Sasuke サスケ, is often pronounced without a clear vowel sound, so the words tend to be closer to "des," "taskeru," Saske," and so on.

Unlike western cartoon adaptations of comics that tend to merely borrow characters or arcs, anime adaptations of manga have a truly insane attachment to being as close as possible to the source material.

Fans of the manga have some panel that they EXPECT to be adapted, they want to see it animated, and so they can become really disappointed if that panel is skipped, changed ever so slightly, or worse: censored.

Thus anime adaptations are often almost 1 to 1 to the source material by the panel. You can find most manga panels animated, and most lines of the manga will be "read out loud" in the anime with little to no alternation. They use the manga as the script, and you can use it as the subtitles. You can read the manga first and watch the anime later. You

The best, however, is to actually use Japanese subtitles.

Learning Japanese with Subtitles

Assistive technologies like subtitles seem to be often ignored by every stage of media production. I think I've heard that the best tool to produce subtitles is actually Aegisub, which wasn't designed for the hearing-impaired, but by weebs, for weebs, to fansub anime. Many video players only support a tiny bit of subtitling functionality (called "closed captions," I believe), in which only one line of text appears on screen at a time. From the tools to make subtitles, to the file formats to save them, to the players to display them, you can have variations from only one line, to multiple lines, to an area on top of the video, one at the bottom, etc. These limitations in storing, loading, and displaying subtitles separately have led weebs to fansub anime with "hardsubs," which were burned inseparably into the video frames and as such couldn't be disabled, but on the plus side they could display text however they wanted.

With this in mind, in streaming platforms that do support subtitles, like Netflix, you still have the awkward situations where "subtitles" implies you're hearing-impaired, so they assume the language you want the subtitles in somehow, and do not let you change it. In such cases you may need to change your language settings somewhere to make the platform think you speak Japanese so it will display Japanese subtitles for you. It's not guaranteed they will have Japanese subtitles for every anime, but they may have Japanese subtitles for some of them, which is something, at least.

  • A Chrome extension, Language Reactor (formerly, LLN, Language Learning with Netflix), uses the subtitle information in Netflix and Youtube videos, among others, to display a selected bar of text under the video with translations and dictionary look up.

If you want to play subtitles in your computer rather than streaming, it may be possible to find a Japanese subtitle file online (e.g. in .srt format), and with a video player that supports loading subtitles separately you may be able to add it to your video. It's possible you may need to synchronize those subtitles if they're off by a few seconds, there's probably a command to shift them by a fractions of seconds somewhere..

Even after setting this all up correctly, it's possible that the Japanese subtitles do not come with furigana. Even though they're text, it's not certain that you'll be able to copy-paste the subtitles in whatever user-interface your video player provides.

So it's infinitely easier to learn with audio after you already know a fair share of words and kanji, and how Japanese works from reading. Starting with audio right away will be extremely difficult.

Learning Japanese with Translations

Weebs, having grown reading manga translated, whether officially or scanlated by fans, may come up with the follow brilliant idea when they start: what if I just read the translated version of the manga, or of of the anime, and then read the raw version, and then I won't need to read a dictionary, which is boring and slow and makes my head ache?

And then after around five minutes doing this they'll search for an online forum ask fellow Japanese learners "why is the translation of this word like this in this panel?"

I'll take one for the team and save everyone involved in this interaction the time, energy and trouble: because it's somebody's interpretation of what the Japanese means, crafted for people who do not speak Japanese.

Liberties will be taken, because if they are not taken it's going to sound EXTREMELY UNNATURAL.

An easy example are the words for siblings, like imouto, "younger sister." Nobody says in English "my younger sister does this," "my younger sister did that," or "aren't you late for school, younger sister?" Which is how you end up with translations like lil sis, big sis, lil bro, big bro, that immediately fall apart when you have a younger sibling that's taller than their older sibling, giving the translators plenty of trouble.

Japanese also has a word order that is in many ways opposite to English. For example, a negative sentence in English is expressed by "not" at its start, while in Japanese it's expressed by ~nai ~ない at its end, which gives birth to translations that sound like:

  • Yeah, I love pineapple pizza... NOT!!!

Anyway, you can imagine the sort of trouble that translators have to go through to figure out what's the best ENGLISH sentence to convey to an English-speaking audience what the author means in Japanese. And they have to go through this for every sentence in the entire text.

The English audience generally won't care, but as a bilingual reader who is combing through the source material and the product of their work, you'll feel inclined to act as a curious apprentice, wondering why did they choose to go with these words for this sentence, and so on.

This is a mistake, as is learning Japanese by translating.

Learning Japanese by Translating

Some language learners may feel that they can better learn Japanese by attempting to translate sentences from Japanese to English. Doing this is more trouble than it's worth and not recommended.

Translating isn't learning a language. Translating is an entirely separate skill, such that merely knowing two languages doesn't make you a good translator.

Translating involves picking words and choosing a natural way of saying something in a completely different language. Good translation requires knowing both languages well all the way to cultural nuances and stereotypes you find in the way people speak.

More importantly, translating is a creative skill. You aren't merely rewriting or transcribing what someone else said or wrote. You're writing with your own words your interpretation of the text. This means not only you need the skill to interpret, you also need the skill to write.

A lot of brain cells gotta burn to produce the translations, perhaps a lot more than would burn to just understand what's being said in Japanese and move to the next sentence. Consuming more Japanese, rather than spending more time in a single sentence, should make learning easier and faster.

In fact, if you know enough Japanese, it will come a time you'll be able to think in Japanese. When thinking, or speaking, another language, you do not translate your original first-language thoughts to second-language. Instead, your thoughts are produced already in this second language inside your brain, just as you produce them right now in your first language.

Bilingual persons do not translate inside their heads the meaning of things. To elaborate, say you know two languages, and in language 1 the name of a thing is X, while in language 2 the name of the same thing is Y. You talk about Y a lot in your 2nd language, but never talk about it in your 1st. One day, you have to say Y in your 1st language. You'll immediately recall what it's called in your 2nd language, it's called Y, but, because you never talk about it in your 1st language, the term X will escape you. You'll think: "how do I say it in my native language again?" What this means is that when a bilingual person talks about Y, it enters their brain as Y and there is no in-brain mechanism that automatically translates or stores it as X inside the brain. It entered as Y and was memorized as Y. Humans learn and speak separate languages separately.

Learning Japanese with Scanlations and Fansubs

In some cases, non-official translations can be more helpful in understanding the context of a work than official translations.

This is due to all sorts of policies employed in official translations, specially those that seek to be "localizations" instead, with tight schedules, in contrast to lax rules and informality of fansubs that allows them creative freedom, coupled with the fans inherent love for the media and the specific work they're translating, plus nearly infinite time to translate stuff.

For example, if an anime was licensed to be subtitled and dubbed, the company may pay its translators to only translate the anime once. The subtitles you see with Japanese audio are the same you would see with the English dub, i.e. they translated the script to English for English voice actors to act, and this script was used as basis for the subtitles shown along the Japanese audio.

Consequently, things that wouldn't be said in English aren't translated, even if they're minimal and give context of the Japanese, e.g. the use of honorifics like ~sama ~様 or ~chan ~ちゃん which may denote respect of lack of thereof in some contexts.

Fansubs, specially older ones, are known for "T/L notes," remarks by the translators, editors, and so on, that try to explain the language or context of what's being translated.

Translating is a difficult creative task, but readers generally not see the words of the translators as their creative work but a layer over the creative work of the manga artist. Even if translators go great lengths to make the most perfectly naturally sounding script, their hard efforts will go unrecognized.

It makes sense that instead of bothering with all this trouble, translators would rather leave things that are difficult to translated untranslated, or half-translated, and provide context to readers who are really only interested in what the Japanese author is trying to say.

Even a simple pair of parentheses providing context for what a word means, or hinting a phrase may be a pun, and so on, would prove very useful for the audience, but official translations typically avoid such things completely.

Works that are deeply ingrained with Japanese culture, whether it's folklore, youkai 妖怪 monsters, etc., pop culture, or even parodies filled with references to older anime, may have been fansubbed by a dedicated group that decorated the whole thing with parentheses, asterisks, and notes between panels sharing their knowledge about the context and subtext of the work.

However, these fansubs do not teach you the Japanese language. They can teach you a bit of Japanese culture which a dictionary wouldn't help you with. If you want to learn Japanese with anime, it's best to avoid reading subtitles and English translations.

On the other hand, not every fan translator is so exceptional. Everyone can try to translate raw manga and doujinshi and post it on the internet, and I mentioned, some do it as a way to LEARN the language, which means the fan translator doesn't necessarily know the Japanese they're translating, so, again, be careful about learning from translations.

Learning Japanese with Songs

People love to try learning languages with songs, and surely enough lots of people try to learn Japanese by singing their favorite Japanese songs, but this, too, carries its fair share of unique pains with little gains.

The reason this is a go to method for learners is that songs are catchy and singing is fun. There's probably a Japanese song you already like, perhaps the OP or ED of your favorite anime, perhaps something you played on osu! You've probably looked up the lyrics already and the translation of the lyrics, and maybe you've tried to sing it, and perhaps you're wondering if this is learning Japanese.

Although I love the enthusiasm and energy, the problem with songs is that... they're songs. If, hypothetically, you learned a language just with songs, you'd communicate with other people by singing like a crazy bard. Songs are not normal prose, and lyrics generally don't resemble any sort of conversation you could ever have.

One particularly Japanese oddity of songs is that a song's lyrics are somebody's words, their story or tale, but they aren't necessarily the singer's. You can have female singers using male pronouns like boku or ore because the "character" of the song is male. Although this also happens in anime where female seiyuu 声優 may voice male characters, it doesn't seem to be as obvious for some reason.

Songs tend to be unreliable in every way you can imagine:

  1. Phonetics: in order to match a rhythm, sentences may be cut at weird spots, syllables pronounced longer or shorter than normal or with unusual stresses.
  2. Natural word choice: words may be chosen not because they're natural-sounding, but in order to match the rhythm of the song. In particular, it's not unusual for songs to pick foreign (in this case, English) words to utter gibberish to sound cooler or pad length.
  3. Meaning: many songs are difficult to understand even if you know the language. There are many sentences where one wonders "what is this guy even talking about. What does this even mean." It's not unheard of for people to enjoy a song without having the slightest idea of what the lyrics are about.

In essence, you can't rely on the song pronouncing the word normally, choosing a normal word, or even constructing a sentence anyone can understand. Yes, songs are fun, but it's not a good idea to rely on them to learn a language.

Some examples:

  • {za(long)nkoku na} tenshi no you ni
    sho(long)nen yo, shinwa ni nare(long)!
    Like a {cruel} angel, boy, become a legend!
    aoi (pause) kaze ga ima (pause)
    mune no doa wo tataitemo
    {watashi (fast) dake wo
    tada (fast) mitsumete
    hohoende-ru} anata
    青い 風が今
    Even if the blue wind strikes [my] chest's door,
    you [who] {is just looking at me, smiling} [will...]
    (incomplete sentence.)

Above are the lyrics of Neon Genesis Evangelion's Cruel Angel Thesis, which, as you can see, make about as much sense as the anime itself. To match the rhythm the pronunciation and stress of several words is all over the place, e.g. aoi 青い, "blue," is pronounced a-o-i like an initialism, and followed by an abrupt pause, even though as a pre-nominal adjective there should be a noun coming right after it. On top of that, "blue wind," aoi kaze 青い風, is a phrase normally found in lyrics to refer to a pleasant wind(chiebukuro:青い風), so you normally wouldn't say this in a conversation. To summarize, it's not being pronounced or used in a way it normally would be.

Okay maybe Eva just makes no sense. So another example:

  • {kawaita} (pause) kokoro de kake-nukeru
    gomen ne (pause) nani mo dekinakute
    {itami wo (pause) wakachi-au} koto sae
    anata wa (pause) yurushite kurenai (long)
    [I] run past [you] with a {thirsty} heart.
    Sorry, [I] couldn't do anything.
    Not even {sharing the pain}.
    You won't forgive [me].
    {{muku ni} (slow) {ikiru} tame} (fast) furi-mukazu
    senaka mukete satte-shimau
    "on the lonely rail"
    {In order to live innocently} [I] didn't look back.
    [I] left with [my] back facing [them].
    "on the lonely rail."

God knows... what this song's title is. Again, a pre-nominal, kawaita, came right before a pause, which makes it harder to pick the words apart just from listening to them. Japanese is a language that allows omitting pronouns in many cases. Consequently, it's ambiguous whether the lyrics mean "I left without looking back at you/them" or "you/they left without looking back at me" or any combination of sort. These lyrics include the English phrase "on the lonely rail" in it. I probably don't need to tell you Japanese people don't normally spout "on the lonely rail" in perfect English out of nowhere in conversations.

One thing we can observe from these songs is that each verse is but a statement, and the whole song becomes a string of assorted statements that only make sense if you infer their connections somehow. The first verse, "I run past you..." seems to be in "narrative present." What's the next? Is the character saying "sorry"? Are they thinking "sorry"? It's not actually clear, tense-wise, whether "forgive," yurusu 許す, means "you won't forgive me for something I will do," or "you won't forgive me for what I did," or "no matter how many times I ask you, you don't forgive me for what I did."

Japanese is already ambiguous enough with interpersonal dialogues in text balloons aided by pictures that can be as long as necessary. The lyrics with sentences that have to be short and without any supporting context are just too hard to figure out, so you probably shouldn't bother trying, either.

Okay, but maybe it's just anime that's too chuuni and hard to understand. So... one last example.

  • totsuzen no kisu ya (pause) atsui manazashi de
    koi no puroguramu wo (pause) kuruwasenaide ne
    de-ai to wakare (pause) jouzu ni uchi-konde
    jikan ga kureba (pause) owaru, "don't hurry!"
    突然のキスや 熱い眼差しで
    恋のプログラムを 狂わせないでね
    出会いを別れ 上手に打ち込んで
    時間が来れば 終わる "don't hurry!"
    Don't break the love program with a sudden kiss and a hot gaze.
    Encounter and separation, input [them] nicely.
    When the time comes, [it] ends. "Don't hurry!"

Plastic Love, as the name hints, seems involve some computers somehow, and awkwardly the lyrics that made most sense so far. So here we have a negative imperative causative form of kuruu 狂う, "to go crazy," kuruwasenaide 狂わせないで, "don't make [the program] go crazy," which for machines means to stop working properly, so don't make the program bug out with all this sudden flirtatious behavior. The encounter and separation are likely in the sense of "encountering your love," i.e. your first encounter with that person (same word used in DanMachi's title for same reason), and separation means parting ways, no longer being partners, divorcing, or, grimly, one of them dying first, to part away. Anyway so far so good, but the problem is, even then, you have the word uchi-komu 打ち込む, which means "to type (in a computer)." So is this a computer that recognizes kisses and gazes, or is it a computer you type on? Or is "to type" used in a non-literally, figurative way here?

As you may imagine, every song you come across will have something like this. A lot of unusual pronunciation and confusing meanings that you wouldn't find in other media. It's not a good idea to try to learn from these because you have no way of making sure that you got the meaning right except for looking up English translations of the songs on lyric websites which will vary wildly and you'll still have no way to figure out which translation is the most correct one.

And I can't stress this enough. The words are chosen based on the rhythm. You can literally lay them out them by mora. Here, check this out:

to tsu ze n no ki su ~ ya
a tsu i ma na za shi ~ de
ko i no pu ro gu ra mu wo
ku ru wa se na i de ~ ne

But it's a great song nonetheless, so if you want to listen to it while you study Japanese in some other way, go for it.

Copy-Pasting Lyrics

Various lyric websites, specially Japanese ones, don't let users select or copy the lyrics for fear they'll paste them on Youtube for internet points and then nobody goes to the lyrics website anymore.

There are many ways this is done. By Javascript, intercepting when an user pressed Ctrl+C or clicks something and preventing the default browser functionality. In this case disabling Javascript will let you copy everything. They can put an invisible shield over the text to get in your way when you try to click the text. In this case opening developer tools and trying to select the lyrics element will instead select the shield, which you can delete from the page to select the lyrics underneath. Or they can do it the right way and set user-select: none; pointer-events: none; in CSS somewhere, in which case you'd have to disable CSS, or delete the stylesheets. It might be faster to press Ctrl+U to view the page's source code and find the lyrics in the HTML source instead, which you can do from the developer tools that you can access in the browser's menu in case the webpage is preventing default keyboard behavior.

Learning Japanese with Games

It's possible to learn Japanese by playing video games, but it's not something you want to do at first. Some games have a lot of text and they are fun, but the games where there's a lot of text worth reading are also pretty unforgiving if you can't understand what the text says.

This is generally the case of JRPGs, from triple-A ones all the way to indie ones made with RPG Maker. Even Genshin Impact becomes impossible to play if you have no idea what the quests want you to do.

Unlike manga and anime, there's generally no way to instantly skip to a point in a text-heavy game. If you're playing a game in Japanese and during a cutscene someone says something you don't understand, you can't switch the language to English and go back to the moment one minute ago. You would have to load a save file from way before that and go around to do the same things to get the same dialogue in a language you know. And it's probably going to be a dialogue you get just after that extremely difficult boss fight.

It's a lot of potential negative experiences. But not all is lost.

One strategy is to play a game that you have already completed in English in its Japanese translation. This way even if you miss something, you'll know where to go, and you'll have a gist of what the characters are saying in the dialogue even before they say it.

It could be that you already own a game that has a Japanese translation and you just don't know it, because you never thought about playing the game in Japanese, since it's not a Japanese game to begin with. Of course it would be better to play an originally Japanese game, with samurais, than a western game set in some iconic American city, because then the shoe is in the other foot: now you'll be reading a Japanese translator's interpretation of the English dialogue and their best attempts to accommodating those lines for a Japanese audience. Nevertheless, they should still be proper Japanese sentences you can learn from, so that won't be much of a problem.

高貴な者よ、これはそなただけに伝える言葉。 これより先、そなたは王と創造主の地に入る。 その敷居を越え、我らの法に従うがいい。 そして目撃者となるのだ。 最後にして唯ひとつの文明、永遠なる王国、”ハロウネスト”の。
Game: Hollow Knight, ホロウナイト (Before Entering Hallownest)
  • Context: text of lore tablet as seen in Hollow Knight's Japanese translation.
  • {kouki na} mono yo, kore wa {sonata dake ni tsutaeru} kotoba.
    {Noble} one, these are words {to convey to you alone}.
    Higher beings, these words are for you alone. (original English)
  • kore yori saki, sonata wa ou to souzoushu no chi ni hairu.
    Beyond this point, you'll enter the land of the king and creator.
    Beyond this point you enter the land of King and Creator. (original English)
  • sono shikii wo koe, ware-ra no hou ni shitagau ga ii
    Cross its threshold and obey our laws.
    Step across this threshold and obey our laws. (original English.)
  • soshite mokugekisha to naru no da.
    And become witness.
  • {{saigo ni} shite} tada hitotsu no bunmei, {eien naru} oukoku, "Harounesuto" no.
    The culture [that] {is {the last} and} the only one, the kingdom [that] {is eternal}. Of Hallownest.
    The {{last} and} only culture, the eternal kingdom. Of Hallownest.
    Bear witness to the last and only civilisation, the eternal Kingdom. Hallownest. (original English.)
    • The Japanese version ends with a no-adjective that qualifies mokugekisha of a previous sentence.
    • Harounesuto no mokugekisha to naru no da.
      Become witness of Hallownest.
      Become Hallownest's witness.

Learning Japanese with Visual Novels

Visual novels are great for learning Japanese, because they often solve the problem that games have mentioned above. A visual novel is, at its most basic form, a picture that's shown on screen accompanied with some text, and the player can interact with the novel to make it go forward.

Since it's so simple, decent VN software also allows the player to review what's been said previously, or revisit any scene even if by just letting them save at any point in time so the player just keeps saving in a new file every time a new scene starts so they end up with the start of every scene saved as a separate save file.

Some visual novels are more game-like, allowing the player to make choices at some points in the story which make it branch. You have dating sim VNs based on this idea, and this interactive part can get really complex, but at its core it's mainly a picture and text.

And sometimes you have characters who have lines, so they say these lines, which are sometimes voiced. Which means that you'll have on your computer: a line of text in Japanese, the voice actor saying the line that you're reading, and the ability to replay that line if you couldn't understand it fully well. Well, this is perfect, isn't it? It's literally everything you could ever want.

There's only one problem, of course. You generally can't copy the text to search the word in a dictionary because... why would you be able to do that? There's no game that just lets you select and Ctrl+C text that's displayed in random parts of its user interface.

Thus if you come across a line where you can't pick apart the syllables from the voice actor's speech, or it's an unvoiced line, and you don't recognize what's written, and there's no furigana, then you'll have to look up each kanji character by component or use an OCR software just like a manga without furigana.

There is however one tool that might make things easier if the above doesn't work or is too much of a hassle.

Text Hook Software

Some various weebs out there have created a type of software that can intrusively figure out what text is being displayed in a Japanese game and show it neatly for you in a selectable, copyable interface, and some even come with dictionary and translations tools as well.

  • No, I don't mean one program. I mean an entire category of these. One of which is the open source Textractor.

Warning: do not install software from sources you don't trust. Just because anyone can read the source code of a program that doesn't mean anyone will. I know I haven't, so I can't tell you for sure if this does what it says it does or it just deletes all your documents and changes your wallpaper to a fan art illustration of Lucky Star. There's probably a download button somewhere with the source code already compiled, but no way to tell if the binaries actually come from that source code. In fact, even if the developer isn't malicious, what if the COMPILER they used was infected???? WHAT IF THERE'S A VIRUS IN THE HARDWARE THAT COMPILED THE COMPILERRRRR???????

Paranoia aside, text hook software work in ways similar to viruses, so they're likely to be flagged by anti-viruses, which makes it harder to tell whether they're legitimate or not.

Essentially, when a game developer makes a game, they typically don't program the whole thing and rely instead on code that someone else wrote. There are countless layers of this: a developer using someone else's code, which in turn uses someone else's code, which in turn—all the way down.

Although every game made with RPG Maker is, uh, at least a tiny bit different from another, under the hood they all use RPG Maker's code. So what the text hook does is figure out what piece of code in RPG Maker's code shows text on the screen, and when that code is executed, the tool extracts the characters that are meant to be display, and copies them to its own user interface where they can be selected.

女子生徒 「私、蒲田桜(かまた さくら)は、 子安洋光(こやす よしみつ)さんが好き」
Game: Kokurase コクラセ
  • Context: Kokurase is a game made using RPGMaker, a tool that doesn't support ruby text, consequently, it uses parentheses to display the furigana for the names of the characters when introducing them.
  • joshi seito
    Female student.
    • Games made with RPGMaker tend to write the name of the character speaking as the first line in the dialogue box, probably because the tool doesn't come with a way to display the name of the character in a separate box.
  • "watashi, Kamata Sakura wa
    Koyasu Yoshimitsu-san ga suki"

    「私、蒲田桜(かまた さくら)は、
    子安洋光(こやす よしみつ)さんが好き」
    "I, Kamata Sakura, like Koyasu Yoshimitsu."
    (double subject construction.)

RPG Maker has several versions, so for it to work with all RPG Maker games it would have to figure out the right code every time, or, if multiple versions rely on an underlying code, hook onto that common code instead.

Not every game is made with RPG Maker, so the same process has to be repeated for every engine that they support. If the game uses something fancier and unique to display text, it gets more complicated. If they aren't display written text but displaying an image on which there's text written, it gets impossible.

In summary, it's not perfectly reliable, it's not guaranteed that every game will work, or that it will work with a game's entire text, but it should work for the more popular game engines even if it's some obscure game using it. It's definitely not supported by the games or game engines themselves. In fact, I think this counts as reverse-engineering, which no software vendor ever likes.

Lastly, you probably don't want to run a text hook on an online game such as Genshin, even if by accident, because there's a chance, depending on how everything was implemented, that whatever anti-cheating software the online game uses will see this weird text hook program as some sort of cheating program, and you probably don't want that to happen.

Learning Japanese with VTubers

Learning Japanese with virtual youtubers (VTubers) simply isn't practical. This isn't limited to VTubers, all other sorts of streamers and video content creators will be impractical, too.

The simple fact is that VTubers don't come with subtitles and there is no way to remedy this, so the only way to learn Japanese from such videos is to already know enough Japanese to understand most of the video in first place.

If you do know enough Japanese, then of course it's a sort of content you could consume.

Besides VTubers on Youtube, it's also possible to find Japanese streamers on Twitch by searching for live channels tagged Japanese. There's often someone streaming art, and someone streaming Japanese TV news or variety programs.

In Japan, TV programs will sometimes feature subtitles for what people say, specially interviewees. Well, rather than actual subtitles transcribing everything they say, it's more like they're quoting the person and displaying a huge text featuring what they said, but they do it such frequency that sometimes it's practically subtitles.

Images source:, accessed 2020-01-01.
TV Program: Hanamaru Market はなまるマーケット
  • joshi chuukousei no ryuukougo tehepero
    A slang [among] middle and high school girls: tehepero.
  • ohayou gozaimasu seiyuu no Hisaka Youko desu!
    Good morning, [I] am the voice actress Hisaka Youko.
  • Seiyuu Hisaka Youko-san
    Voice actress Hisaka Youko-san.
  • {"tehe" to "pero" wo awasete "tehepero" toiu} no wo jibun no naka de kotoba wo tsukutte
    [I] made up in my mind a word {combining "tehe" and "pero" into "tehepero"}.
  • {rajio de hajimete tsukatta} no wo kikkake ni seiyuu nakama no minna ga tsukai-hajimete
    After {[I] used [it] for the first time in the radio}, the [other] voice actresses started using [it].
  • {soko kara ippan no kata ni hiromaru} towa souzou shite-inakatta
    [I] hadn't imagined that {from there, [it] would spread to normal people}.
    • ippanjin
      General populace. Common person. Especially someone unrelated to specific situation.
    • kata

      Person. (polite.)
  • tehepero!!

This custom is also seen in Japanese internet videos, including those made by VTubers. Of course, it's harder to add these subtitles in a live stream, but videos edited beforehand can feature them, e.g. whenever Kizuna A.I. snaps from dying too much.


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