Category Archives: Learn Japanese online

Japanese: How to Stop Studying and Start Learning

stop-studying-japanese1One of the greatest enemies of learning Japanese can be – studying Japanese.

You can’t learn a language by studying it. You can only learn about a language by studying it.

Am I saying you should never study? No, of course not. What I am saying is that study should not be at the center of your effort to learn Japanese. Study is a support to learning.

How much of it you do will vary depending on your approach. It can (and I think should) be a lot less than most people think. But one thing is certain. If all you do is study, you won’t learn Japanese.

When I say that learning Japanese should be like a game, here is what I mean. Imagine a big, complicated game. A really big game. There is a ton to learn in this game.

Now imagine someone who sets out to learn everything (or at least a very large proportion of the information) about the game before she ever touches the controller.

Six months in and she is still trying to memorize the names, characteristics, and elemental types of 1,893 monsters. Nine months in and she is working on the finer points of battle strategy. By a year she is tackling the intricacies of breeding monsters. She still hasn’t touched the game except for practice sessions in the game’s tutorial levels. It all feels terribly abstract and difficult.

Now there may be people who learn well that way. But I think the best approach is to start the game as soon as you know enough to begin. You will encounter monsters, battles and everything else as you go along. You can learn them as you need them. I am not saying this is easy. Learning Japanese is always going to take work. But it is going to make sense and feel like language rather than a set of words and rules.

We suggest that you learn the basics of grammar in a simple way, and then plunge in to using Japanese by watching anime with Japanese subtitles and other real Japanese (non-textbook) activities.

Let’s take some simple examples of how study can become an obstacle to learning.

I have heard people say that as they advance grammar becomes an increasingly complex set of rules that they forget as fast as they learn.

I am not surprised. Grammar should not primarily be learned as abstract rules. You should be using the language and making friends with the way it is used. The rules are not just abstractions to be learned. You need to get comfortable with them, hear them often, get the real-life feel of them. Trying to learn a hundred rules before having the real-life feel of even one is learning upside down.

You can simplify these “masses of rules” hugely by learning how Japanese really works as opposed to the complicated back-to-front approach the textbooks teach. But even that doesn’t substitute for really using the language.

People complain that one word may have ten definitions. How can they learn them all?

We shouldn’t be learning a list of definitions. We should be making friends with the words. We don’t need to learn a whole list of the ways a word can be used. All we need is to understand the way it is being used right now (in the anime we are watching or the book we are reading). We can enter that word into an application like Anki to help us learn it (especially its kanji). But we need to get familiar with that use.

Later on we will see the word used in other ways. We will see the relationship between the different uses. For example, how 切る kiru, to cut, has many extended meanings (Denshi Jisho lists 24) but all of them are based around the metaphor of cutting. Trying to learn them as a list is completely the wrong way to approach them. Just learn them as they come, and the feeling of how the word works will get clearer and clearer over time, just as it does for children.

This last part may take quite a while. It takes children a long time too. The subtleties of the language start falling together in our minds as we use it and use it. It doesn’t need to be rushed. It doesn’t help anything to try to rush it. We just end up with lists of abstractions in our minds that don’t make real sense. Because only making friends with words, grammar and the language as a whole makes real sense of them.

Now having said all this, I have to say that it does depend on what you have entered the world of Japanese for, and how long you plan to stay.

Our immersion approach is based on the assumption that you plan to stay for life. If you are cramming for an exam, you may be better off with lists of rules and lists of vocabulary and all the apparatus of “study”. You won’t learn Japanese, but you will learn a lot about Japanese, and that is what exams are for.

But if you are entering a life-long relationship with Japanese and planning to make her your Second Mother Tongue, the “primacy of study” can become your biggest obstacle. The idea that you spend many months or even years “preparing” before you use the language, for you, is flawed from the beginning.

In our article on how to build a Japanese core vocabulary organically, we gave the example of the person who asks:

How many “core vocabulary” words do I need to learn before I can read manga?

We explained how this approach often leads to disappointment and burnout. But more than that, for Second-Mother Tongue learners it is psychologically the wrong approach. It is developing the wrong relation to the language, as a “subject of study”.

The right question here is:

How much core vocabulary will I learn from reading this manga?

Actually, of course, we do not even ask this question. Our primary objective is reading the manga itself. We are using Japanese, not studying it. The fact that we are “learning core vocabulary” is just a magnificent by-product. Magnificent because it will make it that much easier to read the next manga, and the next, and to watch the next Japanese-subtitled anime, and to do whatever else we do.

Everything we do in Japanese feeds into everything else we do in Japanese. This is how we learn rather than “study”.

The whole “cult of study” can lead to what are, for the Second-Mother Tongue learner, bad practices. For example, if we are doing massive input we do not need to and should not put all our new vocabulary in Anki.

Why not? for two reasons:

  1. We should not be thinking in terms of “study” as the primary way forward. We will pick up words if we are immersing and using massive input. By the time we reach a middling intermediate stage, Anki is for learning words that we feel need a special boost and words that contain unfamiliar kanji (because kanji are a special case).
  2. We need to get over the “fear of forgetting”. We will temporarily forget some words we learn. But this is not our “only chance” to learn them. We will be encountering them again and again. We are in Japanese for the long haul, not cramming for an exam. We need to give the majority of our Japanese time to massive input (and output). Study is useful up to a point but it can easily suck time away from the real thing. (Of course this only works if your input is truly massive.)

So, after basic grammar, should we never study? This is a matter of personal learning style. But I think a Second-Mother Tongue learner, when she does study, takes a rather different approach.

For example, I read A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar for fun. I didn’t try to “learn” it. It may seem odd, reading it for fun, but remember our game analogy. When you love a game, you don’t put off playing it until you have learned a huge amount about it. But you may well read everything about the game you can get your hands on when you aren’t actually playing it. If  you love playing the game, everything that helps you understand the game more deeply is a good read!

One caution here. While deepening our understanding of Japanese is a good thing, reading about Japanese in English can quickly become a bad habit. Do deepen your understanding with a few really good books (the dictionaries of Japanese grammar mentioned above are highly recommended if you are a bit of a grammar nerd like this doll). Do, of course, look up grammar on the Web or elsewhere when you don’t understand it.

For general browsing once you reach the intermediate level, it is a good idea to move it into Japanese as far as possible. I strongly recommend Nihongo no Mori N3 and N2 lessons on YouTube. These videos teach Japanese grammar in a conversational, entertaining manner and all in Japanese, you are in fact learning some Japanese at the same time as learning about Japanese.

But, a final caution. Don’t ever mistake reading English about Japanese for learning Japanese. Don’t think that by reading this site, or any other English-language site, you are learning Japanese. You aren’t. If you are reading to learn something you specifically need to know it can be useful. But more than that is just a distraction from actually learning Japanese.

Again it depends if you are a Second-Mother Tongue learner. If your heart-base is in English and Japanese is a hobby on the side, by all means have fun with your hobby in English.

But if Japanese is where you are going, don’t for a moment think that “playing Japanese” in English is getting you there. If Japanese is like exercise, then every minute you are not doing something in Japanese is like getting off the treadmill, and reading about Japanese in English (except for the occasional necessary and brief clarification) is like getting off the treadmill and eating cake.

But Japanese only feels like a treadmill because we are still basing ourselves in English. The aim of the Second-Mother Tongue learner is to move that emotional base into Japanese.

And that takes effort. From struggling through your first anime to struggling to put your inner monologue into Japanese, acquiring Japanese takes ganbari, just as struggling to understand and express yourself in your first language took ganbari (that is one reason very small children often seem so cross-grained and frustrated). Study takes ganbari too, but it is a different kind of ganbari.

So is this site a distraction from acquiring Japanese too? Too much of it would be. Our aim is to provide the information and encouragement needed for true immersion and share some of the methods that have helped us on the way.

But the main Cures behind this site communicate among themselves almost exclusively in Japanese. We also started the Kawaii Japanese Forums so that other people could communicate in Japanese rather than use English-language “Japanese forums”. This is all part of the philosophy of using Japanese rather than studying Japanese.

We hope this site will help you to plunge into the big, deep, scary-but-wonderful world of real Japanese outside the textbooks. And we hope to meet you there some time!

Learn Japanese Online

Learn-Japanese-online-1You can learn Japanese online in a fast, fun simple way.

You can create your own “immersion environment”, surrounding yourself with Japanese media. The internet makes this possible in a way it never has been before.

You can minimize book-learning and drills, and dive right into the wide world of actually using and enjoying Japanese.

Let’s be clear. We aren’t selling anything and we aren’t promoting some kind of “get-fluent-quick” scheme.

We are simply explaining the key immersion techniques we use to learn Japanese online naturally and organically. Plus the simple “secret” that ties everything together.

Our approach to learning Japanese is pragmatic. We recognize that people learn differently and that “one size fits all” approaches actually only fit some people.

Our approach is based on immersion. It centers around a core of anime. We recommend a number of other techniques that surround, support and branch out from this core.

This site has a lot of information. So on this page we are going to boil it down to the very basics. Not everyone will use every technique we recommend. Those who do will adapt some of them. That is fine. One size does not fit all.

But if you want to learn Japanese online the way we do, here are the core techniques that work together.

There are four core techniques. And then there is the fifth core secret that makes them work exponentially more effectively.

This is just an overview. We also give links to more detailed explanations of exactly how to do each step.

Learn Japanese online: the Core Four +1

1. Grammar. If you don’t know basic Japanese grammar you need to acquire it. Just the basics to begin with. Here is how to go about it.

Some immersionists say you can pick up grammar from context the way a child does. You can, but we would say that doing so is neglecting the only real shortcut you have as an adult (or teen) learner and making life much more difficult for yourself.

Learning grammar is not learning Japanese. It is learning about Japanese.  But acquiring the basics gives you an important head start when you start actually learning Japanese online. Learning the only way you can learn a language (as opposed to learning about it). By actually using it.

And you can give yourself an even bigger head-start by reading and applying the secrets in Unlocking Japanese, which tells you the things the textbooks don’t, and helps you to get a grasp of the really simple structure of Japanese. You can read this small book in an evening, but it will make Japanese easier for the rest of your life.


But don’t worry. You don’t have to (in fact you shouldn’t) try to “finish grammar” before you start really using Japanese. You are going to start using Japanese very soon. Much sooner than with any other approach. Because the second core technique is:

2. Watch anime!

All right, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. You are going to be watching anime in Japanese with subtitles. Japanese subtitles. It will be tough at first. You will be looking up nearly everything. But that stage passes fairly quickly if you ganbaru.

You aren’t taking lessons. You have set out to learn Japanese online. And anime is going to be your university. You are going to learn vocabulary, kanji and grammar and nearly everything else from anime and looking things up that you encounter. They are going to stick better and make sense quicker because you are encountering them live.

How does this fit in with the fact that you are (at the beginning) still learning basic grammar? Much the same way as if you have a game with a thick manual.

You can plow through the whole manual before you touch the controller. For most people it is more effective to read enough to get started and then start the game, while continuing to read the manual. The complicated parts of the manual make a lot more sense when you are actually experiencing the game.

When you are ready to begin to learn Japanese online through anime, click here!

3. Use Anki for vocabulary. Don’t use vocabulary lists, (beyond the very basic first few hundred words) but enter new words as you encounter them in your anime etc. Some immersionists say you should only enter sentences into Anki, not words. This is a valid technique. But it is based on the premise that you have learned kanji via the RTK method. We won’t go into that here, but it involves months of learning all the kanji without learning a single word or a single pronunciation. Just kanji. This does work (for some people), but it isn’t how we go about things. We say, learn words, not kanji.

This means you learn the kanji along with the words, and Anki is a really wonderful tool for doing this. If you don’t want to use Anki, you will need another strategy for memorizing vocabulary and kanji. That’s fine. Mixing methods is not a bad thing. But remember that you can’t just leave this core technique out. If you are going to drop it, you will need another strategy for memorizing vocabulary and its associated kanji.

4. Fill your ears and your life with Japanese. Put the soundtracks of the anime you have watched on your mp3 player. Keep it playing any time there isn’t a huge reason not to (turn it down, not off). Or have Japanese television in the background. Switch your computer’s OS to Japanese as soon as you can just barely handle it.

People differ. Not everyone will want to go as far as we do. I make Japanese my default language. I do my best to keep my inner monologue in Japanese. I only use English when there is a very good reason to do so (like writing this article). If I can’t watch something in Japanese I can’t watch it. If I can’t play a game in Japanese, I can’t play it. It’s as simple as that.

These four are important interlocking techniques. But there is a vital fifth element that holds them all together and makes them work exponentially more effectively:

+1. Make Japanese your language at least in certain areas of your life. This is the One Ring that binds them all. Japanese should not be a “foreign language” to you. It should be your language. You should not be “practising Japanese”, you should be using Japanese.

You already started this with anime. You aren’t playing with textbooks for foreigners (we do recommend learning basic grammar, but only as a quick and dirty shortcut to truly using Japanese). You are watching anime by native Japanese people for native Japanese. It is a struggle at first, but you are doing it. When you use your computer, tablet or smartphone, you are looking at Japanese menus. Japanese isn’t some exotic “other” language. It is part of your life.

So far so good. But there are two halves to language. Input and output. Language is a means of communication. If you want your mind to take Japanese seriously as real language (rather than a limited-area “game-language”, like algebra) you must be using it to communicate inward and outward.

The outward part is admittedly more difficult to arrange. This is partly why it is often ignored.

It is also ignored for exactly the same reason that it is so important. The mind of an English speaker regards English as Language, and Japanese as “a language”. For that reason just about every forum about Japanese learning is in English.

The minute you put down your textbook or manga and want to discuss it, what do you do?


You discuss it in Language. Real Language. Not a “foreign language” like Japanese.

And that is the final secret. The One Ring that binds them all. Japanese has to become Real Language. To me Japanese is Language per se, the language I use except when I absolutely have to use another language. You may not want to go that far, but you do need to have “zones” of your life in which Japanese is Real Language.

 But… is this the right way for you to learn Japanese online?

We said from the start that one size does not fit all. What we have written above is a bare-bones guide for our system to learn Japanese online. There is lots more on this site to fill in the gaps, and we are adding to it all the time.

But is this the right way for you to learn Japanese online?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

Do you love Japanese? This is an immersion method. It involves (surprise!) immersing yourself in Japanese and giving Japanese a part of your heart. Maybe a big part (that is up to you). If you don’t love Japanese this isn’t the approach for you. If you don’t that’s fine too. I learned some French but I didn’t love it enough for immersion.

Do you want to pass exams? This isn’t an academic approach. You will be learning Japanese “from within”. If you want to learn Japanese online in order to pass exams, some of our techniques may still be useful but you will probably also need a more “by the book” approach.

Are you kawaii? Silly-sounding question, but there is a reason for it. We didn’t think we had built our techniques around kawaisa, but in one respect maybe we did. Especially in the early stages you need to use material (anime etc) aimed at children. And the whole point of this technique is that you are doing what you enjoy.

You don’t have to be a full-fledged member of the “kawaii crowd” to use these methods. There is a lot of children’s material that is regarded as classic and loved by even “sensible” adults, but if you really can’t enjoy substantial amounts of material accessible to children (and some people can’t), then the methods as they stand may present a problem to you. You could ganbaru ahead and do it in a spirit of study. But we don’t recommend that. The whole point of this approach is that you are using, not practicing Japanese. Doing in Japanese things that you might be doing in English – even if slowly and haltingly at first.

All right. Assuming that none of these things presents a problem to you: is this the way you want to go? Immersing yourself in Japanese, making it your Language at least for part of your life?

If it is, welcome to the site, and welcome to the select family of second-mothertongue Japanese learners. Even if you only know a few words right now, if you have set your foot on the Way in earnest, you are one of us.

On the other hand, if you want to cherry-pick and just take a few techniques that interest you, be our guest. If even one page helps you a little on your journey to learn Japanese online, we are happy.

To get you started…

This is how to learn basic grammar

This is how to learn Japanese through anime

This is how to build a core vocabulary

This is how to get started with Japanese immersion

This is how to learn Japanese online even if you don’t have a penny

And this is where to come to join the Japanese conversation

See you there!


How to Build a Core Japanese Vocabulary: the Organic Way

Core Japanese vocabulary
What do you mean, goofing off? I’m building my core Japanese vocabulary — organically!

Building a core Japanese vocabulary, and then building out from it, is the biggest single task in learning Japanese. Bigger than kanji.

It’s the same in any language. The vocabulary of a language is vast. And if you go about learning it in the wrong way the results can be devastatingly disappointing.

What are the wrong ways to build a core Japanese vocabulary? More importantly, what is the right way?

The wrong way in my view is to use a vocabulary list. Any vocabulary list. And this includes things like the Anki Core 2000, core 6000 and core 10,000 decks. In the very beginning you might find a very basic word-list useful. But lists of any size are a mistake.

Let me explain why by example.

I have seen people on Forums ask questions like “How many words do I need to know before I can read simple manga?” These people diligently work through Core Japanese Vocabulary Anki decks, often building up to the “magic” 10,000 words over many months.

And then what happens? They pick up a manga or a light novel. And they have to look up every other word. It isn’t a lot better than before they did the “core Japanese Vocabulary” deck. At this stage (and I have seen this happen pretty often) they become seriously disillusioned and wonder if they haven’t wasted their time. And who can blame them?

What went wrong? Why didn’t it work? What should they have done?

The Myth of “Learning Japanese”

The big problem here is part of a bigger problem. The myth of “learning Japanese”. The idea that you prepare and prepare by “study” and then one day you know enough to actually use Japanese and do something fun.

The trouble is, that day keeps receding into an ever more distant future.

You learn usable Japanese by using Japanese, not by studying or practicing Japanese.

Let’s get back to vocabulary and see how it works:

“Maybe if I’d done 15,000 Core Japanese Vocabulary words instead of 10,000 I would be able to read that book”.

I hate to be the party pooper here, but no, you wouldn’t.

Why not?

Because everything you encounter in Japanese has a different vocabulary. The core Japanese vocabulary decks are actually crafted around newspaper frequency. They may help you if you want to read newspapers. I don’t know. I don’t read newspapers in English. I personally think that trying to read newspapers while you are still trying to acquire a core Japanese vocabulary is trying to run before you can walk.

You are much better with a reasonably simple manga, a children’s book or anime with Japanese subtitles. At the very early stages maybe a first-grade reader. I started with Tonari no Totoro in Japanese with Japanese subtitles before I was six months into Japanese. It took ages but was wonderful and taught me a huge amount.

So let’s take a book as an example. A simple novel series (something at a level you can reasonably hope to tackle). You look at it. You are appalled (if you have been slogging at some core Japanese vocabulary list). You need to look up every other word.

Don’t be appalled (especially if you came here first and haven’t poured months into core Japanese vocab lists!) because:

This is your “core list”.

Don’t worry about abstract core Japanese vocabulary lists. Start right where you mean to go. Pick a book appropriate to your level and start reading it. It works with Japanese subtitled anime too. That is where I got most of my vocabulary.

“But I need to look up every other word.”

Yep. And so you would (to your horror) if you’d done a huge “core Japanese vocabulary list”.

Start reading. Look up all the words you need. Enter them into your Anki.

“Isn’t that a major pain?”

Not more than slogging through an abstract “core Japanese vocabulary list”. Well, a little more because you have to make your own deck. Fortunately for you (unlike we ol’ timers who went before you) the process is now completely automated. Rikaisama will allow you to add words to Anki with a single keypress. Don’t neglect this wonderful gift.

Now you can save yourself the trouble of setting up your Anki with Rikai and making all those single keypresses when you look up a word

You can use a pre-made core Japanese vocabulary deck. But when you’ve worked through that, however many months it takes, as soon as you start on a book, you’ll still have to look up a large number of the words anyway. Lazy people take the most trouble!

Because here’s the thing. Every new thing you encounter in Japanese has its own vocabulary. There is such a thing as “core Japanese vocabulary” of course. But it is big and a lot of it does vary with what area you are dealing with.

So if you start with something you actually want to do: an anime series, a children’s novel or manga (preferably part of a long series) you will start learning the vocabulary that belongs to that area. Of course, a lot of this will be “pure core Japanese vocabulary” and useful anywhere. But just learning “abstract core” doesn’t prepare you to read any particular thing. At the end of any abstract “core Japanese vocabulary list”, as soon as you try to take your knowledge into any real area, you are barely literate. And this is so disillusioning.

But learning organically you grow into what you are reading. As you read on, you find you are looking up less and less (in the first book or first dozen or so anime episodes). When you read more in the same series you find you are looking up still less. When you have finished the series, if you pick something close in genre and type you will still be on pretty firm ground. And all the time your Japanese vocabulary is growing.

And, with the possible exception of the very early “look up every other word” stage (but I enjoyed that, and you might too, especially if you aren’t already burnt out with “core Japanese vocabulary lists”). You are having fun. And you aren’t “studying Japanese” or “practising” Japanese. You are using Japanese, even if rather slowly at first.

And here’s the most important thing:

The fact that every area of Japanese, every genre, every writer even, has a particular vocabulary, that is so devastating to “core Japanese vocabulary deck” users who spent so long “preparing” to read Japanese…

That is your best friend.

Why? Because as you read your book, or watch your Japanese subtitled anime, and then the series, and then more of the genre, you keep encountering the same vocabulary. And that cements it far, far better than Anki alone or any abstract list.

I do still recommend Anki, but you will get through it much faster this way because the words will be cemented in by real regular use, not just artificial flash-cards. You will learn the “pure core” words because you encounter them anywhere.

But the truth I believe is that there is no such thing as a core 10,000. The language’s true core isn’t that big, but its peripheral-core or penumbra-core is much bigger, and is dependent on exactly what area you are in.

Is this worrying? Not really. You will pick up the true core. You will be able to handle most regular conversation (provided you work on output as well as input) and you will gradually grow your peripheral-core vocabulary by using Japanese and enjoying it.

Not by doing some artificial “preparation stage” and continually looking at your watch wondering “how much of this do I need before I can…”

Because the answer to that question tends to be very disappointing.

How to Build a Core Japanese Vocabulary: Ninja Tips

So let’s get down to practicalities.

What are the best practices for learning Japanese vocabulary organically?

1. Choose something at your level. It can be anime. The Dolly Anime Method is ideal for this. It can be manga or books. But don’t try to run (at least not too fast!) before you can walk. Choose something reasonably appropriate to your current Japanese “age”.

2. Preferably choose a long series. That way you can get used to its vocabulary and learn a lot of words by encountering them often. This supplements your Anki with valuable organic exposure. The old Heidi anime, for example, has around 50 episodes and subtitles with furigana. I wish I’d found it earlier!

3. Pop new words into Anki using the automated method built into Rikaisama. Some people manage without Anki by pure repeated exposure. It depends how your mind works, but I think Anki is good for most people. However, repeated exposure will make things go much smoother, quicker and deeper than “raw” Anki.

4. Use mnemonics if you need them. More about this in the linked article. Don’t be afraid of mnemonics in learning vocabulary. They have a long history in classical Western scholarship. They “pin” words into place in your mind and fall away when you no longer need them. But they can really help with new words.

5. Learn Kanji with words. This is really an article in itself but I mention it here. Don’t try to “learn kanji” in the abstract, but do learn them along with the words you encounter. Break them down into their components and make little stories for them (unless you don’t need to. Some folks I know are visual-kanji wizards. Lucky them!) Either way, kanji are vital to Japanese vocabulary. They may look scary but they are really little darlings and will soon become your friends. Believe it or not, they make Japanese vocabulary much easier in the long run.

6. Don’t go overboard with Anki. You don’t need to enter every unknown word even though you will be entering a lot at first. But don’t choke yourself. Use judgment and avoid words that are not likely to recur much. Remember that Rikaisama also conveniently includes word frequency information. You shouldn’t get number-bound but it is a guideline to bear in mind (as is the likelihood of a word to reappear in the material you are reading). You will pick up some words without Anki.

All right. You’re good to go. If you have comments or questions, pop them below. I’ve probably forgotten something! If you could use some personal help in using this approach, try this.

With this method you can build a core Japanese vocabulary smoothly, organically and enjoyably.


How to Build Japanese Vocabulary Even with a Poor Word Memory→

A Key to Increasing Japanese Vocabulary→


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.

Skip introduction and jump straight to:
How to learn Japanese Through Anime

How to Build a Core Japanese Vocabulary organically
How to learn Japanese Grammar

* 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.

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 file 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 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:

Stop press: Since this article was written there are several sites where you can watch Japanese-subtitled anime much more easily. Check them out here.

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.

Here is a more detailed article on this method of learning vocabulary.

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.

Here is a more detailed article on learning basic grammar.

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. If you would like individual help getting started with this method, go here.

Learning Japanese through anime, Phase 2!

How to Build a Core Japanese Vocabulary
How to learn Japanese Grammar