Learning Japanese with JRPGs: doing it by the numbers

Dragon Quest VII. Lots of text but are JRPGs best to learn with?
Dragon Quest VII. Tons of text but are JRPGs the best way to learn?

Can you learn Japanese with JRPGs? They can certainly help a lot, and I recently discovered a very useful though simple strategy for maximizing their learning potential.

Recently I have been playing the 3DS remake of Dragon Quest VII. I am adoring seeing Dorakue in 3D and finding the game very useful for learning. Dorakue VII is actually one of the best JRPGs to learn Japanese with because it is very text‐heavy.

In fact, Square Enix has currently no plans to translate the game into English because it has so much text that it would be unusually expensive to localize. An unstated reason, I suspect, is that Western RPG players have much less tolerance of extensive text (even in English, the lazy piffers) than Japanese players. A reviewer of the original Playstation version of this game is quoted on Wikipedia as saying that the first part of the game consists of “some of the most boring hours you will ever play in a video game.”

At my playing speed (very slow even in the old English days) it was ten hours before I had a fight. But these hours were packed with story. “Never mind the story, just get on with the game” is the attitude of many Western players, I think. No wonder the company is hesitant about a translation.

But I digress. The point here is that Dragon Quest VII has a lot of text. I recently came to the conclusion that the best Japanese games for learning were visual novels – the Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright games both fall into this category. Best because the proportion of text to anything else is much the highest. In Professor Layton one spends some time on puzzles, but the rest is practically pure text with pretty visuals. In Phoenix Wright the “puzzles” are part of the text itself, and you have to understand the witnesses’ stories in considerable detail to spot the 矛盾 mujun, contradictions in their accounts of events.

With Dragon Quest VII, even though it is one of the wordiest JRPGs ever made, one still spends a great deal of time fighting monsters. While there is a little text involved in the turn‐based fights (menus, descriptions of events), it is repetitive and brief. Not terribly useful for learning. Since you will be spending hours of your play time doing this, does that make JRPGs a bad choice for the learner?

My answer is no. In the first place, after visual novels they are clearly the second‐best option for reading comprehension purposes. There is a lot of text and it matters (if you don’t understand what a character is saying you may not know what to do next). JRPGs are good practice. It is just that with all the fights they aren’t constant practice. Except that…

The Dolly Secret to Learning Japanese with JRPGs

I just discovered a perfect way to make those fights play into your learning.


JRPG fights are full of numbers. If you are familiar with table‐top RPGs you can practically hear the dice rattling under the screen. And you can see the numbers too. Every time you hit an enemy or an enemy hits you, what pops up? A number. When you win, you are told the amount of gold and experience you just gained. In numbers. When you level up, you are given a string of numbers telling you which stats improved, by how much, and what they are now.

This is very useful for learners, even fairly advanced ones. The trick is to be disciplined and say each number, preferably aloud, when you see it.

“But I know Japanese numbers. I learned them in lesson 2, ‘way back,” you may be saying. Of course you know them. So do I. But how fast do you know them? Can you think in them? Can you see 32 or 469 and immediately see not “thirty two” or “four hundred sixty nine” but “san juu ni” or “yon hyaku roku juu kyuu” ?

That is what this exercise is about. Making numbers in Japanese not something you “know” but something you actually think in, as second nature and first language.

You may actually find the pace of combat too fast to do the in‐fight numbers at first. If so, just diligently say the 経験値 (experience points) and gold numbers that come up after each battle and the stats when you level up. You can take your time with these.

Work up to saying every number that comes up in a fight as soon as it appears. This requires a little 我慢 gaman, but you are thinking in Japanese culturally as well as linguistically, aren’t you? So 我慢 is becoming natural to you, isn’t it? You might make an exception for multiple hits (where an attack hits all or a group of opponents). I do, because I can’t do that in English (but numbers are my 短所 short suit in any language).

But what you are aiming at is the point where you can see a number in Japanese when your mind is in J‐mode. You aren’t thinking “thirty‐seven, oh that’s san juu nana”, you are thinking “san juu nana”.

It is tricky, because when Arabic numerals are used it is pretty much equivalent to reading a word in English. Your mind has mapped those characters to certain sounds. What you are doing is re‐mapping the Japanese numbers to your Universal number perception, just as learning Japanese should be re‐mapping Japanese to Universal Grammar. Most learners never do either.

But you will. With the help of JRPGs.

The only way to achieve such a radical re‐mapping is huge amounts of repetition until the new map becomes instinct. The same way that, if you touch‐type, endless practice taught your fingers where all the keys are, even when your brain can’t instantly recall the information. In other words, moving the Japanese number system from conscious recall to instinctive and instantaneous association.

Such practice in isolation would be mind‐numbingly tedious. But JRPGs will kindly throw an endless stream of numbers at you while you’re having fun. And you can turn what was wasted time from a learning point of view into highly valuable practice.

Even as your characters gain experience points with each battle and keep leveling up, so will you gain number‐remapping experience points with each battle and continually level up toward your total remap.

It is such a kind world, isn’t it?

One thought on “Learning Japanese with JRPGs: doing it by the numbers

  1. Oh what a good idea! Thank you so much, Cure Dolly. Learning to count and use numbers in Japanese is really important, I think. I know immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for a long time, speak English reasonably well, but who still count and use numbers in their native language. I have been trying do count in Japanese whenever I can, such as when I knit or do other things that involve counting. I never thought of doing that with RPG’s though.

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