Can You Learn Japanese From Anime?

There is a bit of a debate as to whether anime is a useful tool for studying Japanese, or just something worthless that will get in the way.  I know a lot of people start studying Japanese because of anime and manga.  Good for you.  You should study Japanese for whatever reason you want.  I watch the occasional anime, and I think people need to realize the study value of it.

What the naysayers argue about using anime to learn Japanese:

Argued:  You’ll learn useless Japanese phrases that are never really used in real life.  Why do you need to learn phrases like 戦闘力8000以上 (His power level is over 8000) or 影分身の術 (Shadow clone technique)?
Debunked: Okay, yes you probably will never need to say “shadow clone technique” or “his power level is over 8000” in a conversation.  But I guarantee you will need to know the words shadow, clone, and technique as well as the words his, power, level, over, and 8000.  All the strange set anime phrases are made up of normal words that you will constantly use in other situations.

Argued:  Phrases from anime are made up often and are not real Japanese.
Debunked:  Yes there are phrases made up all the time.  For example Goku says おら for “I” and Naruto says だってばよ to emphasize a point.  Guess what, people make up phrases all the time in their own language.  Sometimes it is cool and catches on, sometimes it doesn’t.  You never heard someone who “lolled at epic pwnage”?  It’s useful to see made up phrases because native speakers make up their own words all the time, and you want to sound like a native.  Also made up words are usually just derivatives of real words.  だってばよ comes from  だってば which comes from ってば (which is used to emphasize a point).  おら comes from おれ(meaning I).

Argued:  The spoken Japanese doesn’t sound natural, and if you copy it, your Japanese will sound strange.
Debunked: Sometimes characters speak in low, high, exaggerated, or strange voices.  Guess what,  the same thing happens in movies and TV shows, and of course in real life.  Not all anime characters do this, and trust me you won’t be confused into thinking that the villain’s voice is a natural way to talk and then try to mimic it.

And guess what, Japanese dubbed movies/TV shows use the same voice actors as anime.  If you are going to bash anime as a learning resource, might as well bash these sources as well.  You know what, you also might as well just avoid movies and TV in general, because we all know how realistic dialogue can be in them.

Argued:  The Japanese is too casual, and therefore is not found in normal conversations.
Debunked: You need to learn casual Japanese.  Very casual Japanese.  You need this probably more than polite Japanese.

Argued:  Anime Japanese will affect/harm/get in the away of real Japanese.
Debunked: When you were a kid, and all you watched were cartoons, did that ever get in the way of your “real” English?  And anyway, what is this “real Japanese”?

Argued:  You need to use textbooks and attend classes to master Japanese.
Debunked: This is more of a general statement, but usually people who criticize anime as a learning tool are obsessed with classes and textbooks.  These people usually will never reach more than a classroom Japanese level, which is really about a low intermediate level.  I have nothing against classes or textbooks, but they are only one source of learning, and in my opinion not the top source.

Anime is also difficult.  You’d think a cartoon would be easier to understand, and therefore maybe not “real studying”.  But anime is harder to understand than most dramas, movies, songs, textbooks, and classes.  Why?  Because of all the reasons mentioned above.  Anime uses many different dialects, different types of voices, words not commonly used, words set to a very specific genre, and made up words.  If you can understand anime well, your Japanese is probably very decent.  Those that attack anime usually can’t undertsand anime themselves.

Reasons to use anime as a tool in learning Japanese:

Let’s get into some reasons why anime is great to learn Japanese with.

1.  Anime is fun.  They are like movies with unlimited special effect budgets.  Why deprive yourself from a source that is going to continually motivate you to master Japanese.

2.  Do you ever plan on talking with a Japanese child and having a clue what they are saying?  You need to know some basic anime.  Japanese children use phrases from anime all the time in their daily conversation.  I always find it amusing that the “textbook learners” can have conversations with adults, but can’t come close to talking with a child.

3.  Cultural references are absolutely vital to sounding natural in your Japanese.  Anime is a part of Japanese culture.  People in their casual conversations, polite conversations, business conversations will throw in anime references.

4.  Jokes stem from cultural references.  If you saw someone eating a bunch of spinach and said to them “woah, Popeye, ease up there”, would you understand it?

5.  Anime is easy to get.  There is an abundance of it.  This means that you can sort through it all and find stuff you really like.  You don’t have this ability with movies and dramas which are more limited and harder to find.

How to use anime to improve your Japanese:  Guidelines

There are a few guidelines I would like to set that should be followed if you want to use anime most effectively in your Japanese studying.

1.  Spread your genres out.  The wider variety of anime you watch, the more useful it will be to your Japanese.

2.  Don’t just watch anime 100% with nothing else.  You need a variation of anime, manga, novels, movies, TV shows, comedy, and music to balance out your Japanese.

3.  You cannot watch anime with subtitles.  Let me repeat this, no subtitles.  This doesn’t just go for anime, but also for movies and tv shows.  If you are watching subtitles you are not listening to Japanese, you are reading English. (Update): See the pros/cons of using English subtitles to watch anime.

4.  Once you are done reading this post, don’t bother arguing it with anyone.  People love arguing about the “correct” way to study a language.  Use that time for something more productive.

So there you go.  I hope you feel better about using anime as a Japanese study resource.

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Can You Learn Japanese From Anime? — 30 Comments

      • haha, a lot of manga books are actually harder than a lot of novels I know of. I have the whole complete manga set for ruouni kenshin>るろうに剣心.
        I don’t have trouble reading it due to have a strong kanji knowledge. But the phrases they use in that manga/kanji. You would almost never see in real-life use. It goes to tell you that, anime/manga are sometimes even harder then normal fiction books and others as well.

          • anything we learn is pretty much useful in some way.Even if it’s rare kanji/rare phrases. That’s why I like learning Japanese, so much more to learn. Although in my native-level language(english), I’m pretty lazy actually lol

  1. It was driven home to me again just yesterday how important it is to turn off the subtitles if you expect to learn any Japanese at all. I was watching a TV show at my relatives’ place (in English). I could of course hear it perfectly well, but my aunt is hard of hearing so she had the closed captioning on … and I found very quickly I was paying hardly any attention to the spoken dialogue, just reading the subtitles. And that’s in English! Imagine how useless a foreign language audio track would be if you had the subs on.

    • Really great point Lan! I think many people may have experienced something similar to this, so this idea can really reinforce the importance of avoiding subtitles at all costs.

  2. I totally agree with you. 100%. I learn Japanese from many sources, including anime, manga and Japanese music. Watching anime has helped me reinforce what I already learn from books. While watching, I understand contexts, learn subtleties of grammar and expression, discover the beautiful culture, and most of all, have fun! My vocabulary is always improving. I think anime is a wonderful tool for learning alongside other things, like books or classes!

    Great post here. I love it!

  3. Learning SOLELY and PURELY from anime won’t help that’s for sure. However, there are people who think they can do it. Only very young children can pick up a language that way though. But I even have a 10 year old cousin who has been watching English cartoons ever since and still can’t speak straight English with me.

    My main source is from textbooks and iPhone apps. I also have penpals to help me out (I don’t go to classes, I self-study). And I think J-drama is a better supplement than anime.

    I can speak to little kids too, even though I’ve been practicing with adults. I guess it’s usually those who learned in a classroom who have the problem with kids.

  4. of course you can talk to children if you don’t know anything about anime,
    most of the children s parents don’t know much about the anime their children are watching. i know, i lived with a Japanese family for quit a long time because i was engaged to their daughter. and i could talk to the children fine about how school was going, what they did that day, and so on, now understanding a conversation between two kids is a different story because they will rant on about their favorite anime characters and about how sasuke’s eyes are cooler than naruto’s nine tailed fox and why…. but the parents don’t know what the heck they were talking about either….. but i did, and when i chimed in the conversation we could talk together about things they liked and not just the routine day to day life they had. plus Kids are not the only people talking about anime in Japan, but people of almost all generations have some anime stories they love to talk about.
    Anime if a colorful expression of old Japanese culture values and if you are in japan for something other than a business trip, you will be the fool if you don’t know anything about anime, sports and japanese food.
    some thing to think about

  5. I can testify from personal experience that anime can act as a valuable source of Japanese immersion, especially in early stages. Simply watching anime with english subtitles carried me through JLPT4 and half-way through JLPT3 with minimal studying and top scores (although I turned up at JLPT4 believing that the subject marker は was actually written わ *blush*). Using subtitles is not all bad, since it works wonders for hammering grammar points into your mind if you have an auditory-oriented brain. I will agree however that it can only take you so far, since after a certain point you see very little improvement in your Japanese from anime alone (except from picking up more convoluted vocabulary, such as “undead” or “afterlife” or “ammo” depending on what you’re watching). At that point, you need to variate your sources a bit. But with Japanese being my 4th language, I can assure you from experience that no studying will ever replace good old honest I’m-having-fun immersion.

    • It is interesting to consider how being an auditory or visual person really changes what methods of studying are effective.

      I watch anime with subtitles because I’m watching it with someone who isn’t studying Japanese but I’m a visual person and all I’m getting out of it is some examples of usage of words I already know.

      To get something like your experience, I’d have to watch it dubbed with Japanese subtitles (possibly kana/furigana’d subtitles depending on what I was trying to study.) But watching dubbed anime isn’t any fun, so: this gives me the idea that if I can find Japanese subtitles for any of this stuff and add them with subs2srs’s deuling subtitles feature I’d probably pick up more Japanese than I am with this time as well as learn some kanji.

      Does anyone who has used subs2srs have tips on finding Japanese subtitles? I feel like I’ve found enough that if I were trying to make anki cards of some anime I enjoyed I’d be set for a while, but my chances of finding them for a specific show that we’re watching aren’t very good. This may just be the situation.

  6. Do you have any specific techniques to share regarding learning Japanese from watching Anime? I have mostly been watching with subtitles until now because I have hardly understood anything without them. I will give it another go since my Japanese has improved somewhat – for reference, I have recently finished Genki II and just started an intermediate course. Some specific questions I have are:

    How often should I be writing down words that I don’t know? Should I stop the anime and search the meaning in the dictionary?

    If I didn’t really understand an episode, should I watch it again? Multiple times? Consecutively? A month later? With subtitles on and then again with them off?

    • First get rid of the English subtitles immediately. If you still need a slight handicap, try using Japanese subtitles.

      Second, put episodes that you have already watched (even if you understood nothing) on your music device, and listen passively throughout the day, repeatedly. You should be building a playlist of hundreds of thousands of shows that you listen to constantly and repeatedly.

      Finally, I don’t like destroying the flow of watching TV to write things down. However, you can come back to it after with something like subs2srs (post on this method coming soon).

  7. What is your opinion about watching anime/movies with Japanese subtitles as opposed to without any subtitles at all?

        • You have to get used to understanding spoken Japanese without subtitles, because not everything will come with subtitles. Real life conversations certainly won’t :p

        • The wording is a little funky. To put it another way:
          “Japanese subtitles are great, but you should also try to do some things without subtitles”

  8. I don’t agree with the need to turn off the subtitles. I’m not learning Japanese right now (well, I am picking up some words from anime but I am not learning seriously) but I have learned English from books and television and I found subtitles extremely valuable on several stages (all of them, actually) of learning:
    – when I started with the language, I was far from knowing enough words to really understand what’s going on in a conversation without the translation, but I could already start to get used to English sounds and try to spot the words I had already learned. I was using Czech (my native language) subtitles at that time.
    – as I got to the lower intermediate level, I was able to understand most of a conversation, but I was still weak in deciphering phrasal verbs, idioms and slang. Without Czech translation, I wouldn’t be able to learn the proper meaning of these expressions (this, of course, works only when the translators know these expressions themselves which is unfortunately not the case with many Czech translators :/ I hope Japanese-English translators are better…).
    – When I was quite advanced, I switched for English subtitles. By then, I was able to understand almost everything even without the subtitles, but they was very useful in case I didn’t catch some specific expressions like places, slang, words borrowed from other languages and pronounced with English pronunciation (Latin expressions and names are tricky for example, our pronunciation is very different from how they’re pronounced in English) – English subtitles are like a safety net for these situations. Also, you can learn spelling (and kanji in your case) of new words.
    – These days I am turning back to Czech subtitles, I am amusing myself by searching for bad translations and exercising my own translator skills by thinking about how to translate it better.
    In short, I think that without subtitles, my English would never be as good as it is now and I would never recommend anyone to never use subtitles when learning a foreign language. You just need to teach yourself to pay attention to both spoken word and the subtitles and not just to the subtitles.
    Btw. if English isn’t your native language, you can actually improve both your new language AND English by using English subtitles – it works for me when I watch French movies with English subtitles. My French sucks, I would catch half of what’s going on on the screen without translation but this way I’m learning new French words and I have also added some useful culture-specific terms to my English vocabulary. :)

  9. I haven’t learned Japanese yet but I plan on taking a course soon. Once I complete a years worth I’ll start to learn take away subtitles and use more ear. I think I will be ok with the kanji part as I am chinese.

    I alo want to add that you should use subtitles at first. It’s useless if you listen toa phrase and not understand it. If you can read and also understand what they are saying at the same time, that’s a good way to learn.

    Also, for advanced learners I think using JAPANESE subtitles is noteworthy. You get to improve both sides at the same time.

  10. Hey I’m 10 and I just started learning Japanese.So should I start turning of the subtitles now?Because I wouldn’t understand anything.Also the subtitles are helping me because I do listen to the words they are saying.Just wondering.:P

    • Only 10?! You’re gonna be a Japanese master when you reach adulthood.

      I would say you should turn off the subtitles, or at least make an attempt towards functioning without them. If you never turn them off, it will be difficult to get adjusted to understanding spoken Japanese without the English crutch. But motivation is a key factor here: suddenly being cut off in a sense from your favorite shows can be disheartening, and the most important thing you can do for your Japanese is never put yourself in a position where you want to give up. Maybe try watching one show with subtitles and one show without?

  11. Two more reasons why anime makes for good study material:

    1. There is not only an abundance of it, but the abundance cuts across a huge variety of genres. Whatever your interest might be, there is probably anime for it. And then some.

    2. Anime episodes are just about the perfect length for a session of active listening.

    Something else I rarely see people mention is that the Japanese also produce radio/audio drama, which uses the same voice acting talent as anime and foreign film dubbing. Even manga that doesn’t get an anime often gets at least an audio drama. And it is frequently near verbatim, which is awesome practice.

    I got turned on to Japanese exclusively through manga and anime. I like languages in general (speak 3 fluently, and 8 others at at least a basic conversational level), but I hadn’t intended to learn Japanese — I’ve had direct reasons for learning all the others, such as traveling and living in different countries, or working for specific language departments at a university. But Japanese wasn’t even on my language horizon; Japan seemed too far to travel to, too unfamiliar, had no connection with anything in my life.

    Thanks to manga and anime I’ve branched out into several other areas of interest (arts, crafts, history), I am now actively learning Japanese, and I hope one day to walk the Nakasendo Trail. Oh, and I am nearly 60. Nobody puts down manga and anime within my hearing (at least while it’s not failing yet ;).

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