How I Understood my Very First Japanese TV Series

I know you all have really noble motives for learning Japanese. You want to study ancient Japanese literature, talk to your Japanese grandma, or have a Japanese tea party or whatever the heck you kids do these days. But we all know deep down everybody’s really learning Japanese so they can watch anime and Japanese dramas all day. Let’s be honest!

The problem is, a year has passed, two years have passed, and you still can’t understand them! What’s up with that? Yeah, you know what 絶対大丈夫だよ means and you know who さん, くん, and さま are, but when anybody says anything actually interesting, things start to get really confusing.

You’re getting depressed. You can read a dozen manga and write a blog but when it comes to your リスニングの力 you still look like an idiot. It sucks! I know.

What can you do?

Well, you can keep on listening to Japanese podcasts while you’re driving to work every day and keep having your friends look at you funny for listening to Japanese girly-pop from one earbud while talking to them. Maybe you will get there someday in the future.

Or you could just cheat your way through it. I like cheating, so let’s go with that.

Now you should know by now that everybody around here loves Anki, and for good reason, of course. But when you build the base of your learning on reading, your listening comprehension isn’t going to develop as quickly. That’s just the hard truth, but there’s no need to panic because we can use that to our advantage because we’re resourceful, right? We can use reading as a crutch.

Bridging the gap

The best way to bridge the gap from visual to auditory comprehension is to find something you can read first and then listen to. Obviously, this isn’t going to replace actual Japanese conversation or all-day listening immersion. And I’m not going to tell you you’re going to be able to suddenly understand a dozen anime and every commercial on daytime TV. Even though that would be pretty cool.

But you will be able to understand something you really like, be that an awesome 東京事変 album or that cute kid from My Girl. You’ll also have a big head-start to being able to understand everything else.

The method

We’ll start with reading what we want to be able to understand. This means reading the subtitles of an anime, a podcast transcript, or J-pop lyrics. For most people, especially ones who have spent a lot more time reading than listening, this will be much easier.

The text doesn’t speak really fast or slur words (hopefully . . .)

Take your time. Look up words you don’t know, and crack open a grammar book. Stick them through Anki a few times so you don’t forget them.

Putting it into practice

I billed this post as How To Understand Your Very First Japanese TV Series, so let’s actually do that.

Here’s how I learned how to understand my very first anime with no subtitles, not even Japanese subtitles, in about a month’s worth of time.

1. Pick a good series. I like the 12-episode ones, at least to start off with, because it’s obviously a much easier goal to complete than a 24-episode series or a 1,000-episode series. Pick something that won’t have a lot of weird words, either. Usually, slice-of-lifes are the easiest to understand. I used Another.

2. Grab some Japanese subtitles. Unfortunately, these can be hard to locate. There just aren’t a lot of them on the internet. The best place to check are kitsunekko for anime and D-Addicts for dramas. If you have the DVDs of the series, which I’m sure all you good, undoubtedly law-abiding anime-watchers have, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to find some subtitles on there, too.

Now you’ll have to do some work. Don’t worry, it’s not too bad.

3. Get the series you’re planning on studying into your computer by ripping the DVDs or some way or another. Then you’ll need to take the whole mess of subtitles and video and turn it into Anki cards using Subs2SRS.

If I’ve completely lost you by now, no need to worry. If you don’t know how to do any geeky stuff like that, take a look at Cayenne’s guide for a pretty simple explanation on how to use Subs2SRS for fun and profit (especially profit).


Once you’ve done that, you now have an Anki deck full of cards from the series. This is the fun part.

4. You get to do whatever you want with it. Some people like to fiddle around with it and add definitions and other things. I just go through the deck with my three favorite online dictionaries open next to it. I think that’s simpler. Do whatever you want. If you find a word or a grammar you don’t understand, look it up. If a card is too easy for you or it’s just filler text (stuff like “何?”, “そうですか”, and “恒一くん!”) just hit the delete key.

With a 20-minute-twelve-episode show, you can usually complete it a little more than a month. Of course, this assumes you’re at a fairly intermediate level, like me. I did a hundred lines a day, or about a third of an episode, which isn’t that hard as half of them I already understood. Set yourself a goal. Find a date you want to complete it that’s doable and figure out how many cards you need to go through every day to reach your goal.

Time to rewatch episodes

If you’ve kept up on your reviewing, you should be able to understand just about everything. While I wasn’t able to understand every line, I’d say I was able to understand 95%+ of a show. I don’t know about you, but I call that a 大成功!

Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, you can apply this thinking to a lot of different Japanese media. Use your imagination. There’s a lot you can learn.

If you try this out or have tried anything similar to patch up your listening comprehension, let me know how it works out for you!

Written by: Eric

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A writer for Japanese Level Up, a part-time graphic designer, and purveyor of fine Japanese art (which consists mostly of anime, manga and weird music). When he's not wasting time in Japanese, you can usually find him making pretty pictures or studying something that sounds interesting.


How I Understood my Very First Japanese TV Series — 13 Comments

  1. Great article, I am going to do something similar with pokemon x.

    Just waiting for my 3ds to come from Japan…

    • Sounds good. Are there game scripts or something like that floating around on the internet somewhere? Those have been a big help to me. I’m pretty jealous, too! :)

      • I am not sure about the game scripts. I was just going to take screen shots every time there is a sentence I don’t know. There is a setting to change the game text from just hiragana to kanji, so that should be quite good I think. Plus its pokemon. Nuff said.

        • Yeah, I need to get my hands on some of the newer Pokemons. I played a few of the old ones in Japanese but the all-kana gave me a headache. Nice that the newer ones have a setting for kanji.

  2. I hesitate to mention this because it is almost certainly almost entirely stupid. But conversely that means there’s a small chance that it has some small value, so here goes.

    Recently I’ve been making cards from anime with audio and a picture on the front and just the English translation from subs on the back. No Japanese text at all. This solved a number of problems, all of which admittedly could be unique to me (can’t run subs2srs, can’t find Japanese transcripts for many series (if they’re on the BDs I own neither MakeMKV nor Handbrake can find them), terrible memory, gave up on monolingual after 500 cards…) The obvious, and frankly huge, problem with this is that the Japanese audio and the English text may have very little to do with each other.

    What this does accomplish, if anything, is that it forces me to engage more actively with audio material. My vocabulary is probably “decent” at this point, a couple thousand words or so, and being able to correctly identify a card requires focusing on the audio and picking out those words I know in order to trigger my memory into recalling the whole meaning. It’s a way of strengthening both my リスニングの力 and memory of words I do know. Plus, there have been one or two words that appeared in short, i+1 sentences that I picked up from the English translation of the full sentence. Not to mention that I can then rewatch the show and understand what’s being said in an active way, at least to some approximation.

    In a few cases where Japanese transcripts have been available I’ve been playing with loading them into my browser and reading them with Rikaichan turned on. It’s sort of a poor man’s I haven’t done much of this, but it feels like a nice supplement to the cards — armed with a memory of the pronunciation and general meaning of the lines my reading speed and retention might be improving. Maybe making cards would work even better, but that would require more effort than I want to put in.

    Of course I’ve also been continuing to add to a more conventional J-E deck, as well as continuing to read both intensively and extensively. This has just been a sort of experimental supplement to exercise different mental muscles, and it’s been fun if nothing else.

    • I use English with my cards, too, but I usually keep it hidden unless I am really stumped. I add an “English” field to my Anki cards but I don’t display it on the actual flashcard, so if I want to see it in English, I have to click “edit”. It keeps me from thinking in English too much and I only use it if I just can’t figure out what they’re talking about or it’s some kind of expression or phrase I’ve never heard before. Your method would definitely help more with audio comprehension. How has it been working out for you? Are you able to understand most of the lines without the accompanying text?

      • Ah, tucking the English into a hidden field is a clever thought! It still leaves me with the problems of finding Japanese text and not having the technology to automate the process, but I might try doing this manually for a few cases to see how I like it.

        The question of how to know whether something is working is one I’ve pondered occasionally. At the moment it’s hard to say whether these cards are really getting me any closer to fluency, but at least I can say that they’re sticking in my memory like… well, like the way Anki is supposed to work but never quite has for me before. I haven’t failed most of these cards at all, and even the worst cases seem to need only a couple of reviews before they “stick.” So in a way the text on the back doesn’t even matter since I almost never need to check. I find I know what most cards mean with 100% confidence, although the caveat here is that I still only have a bit over 200 of these and very few have reached maturity. Ask me again when I’m reviewing dozens of cards that I haven’t seen for a few months :)

  3. I’m currently using subs2srs to go through the K-ON! series, so far it’s going pretty good. I’m quite sure that by the end of the first season I’ll be able to rewatch it with confidence in my understanding.

    And another question here(that I also asked on Cayenne’s thread), how can I format my subs2srs cards to look like the cards above? I’ve been trying to replicate it but I can’t quite get it. It just looks so good in those images, I want it. Haha.

  4. That’s what I did since the 7th (?) month of this year (which is my first year btw), I was felling badass cause I was able to read most manga with some fluency, but still understand close to nothing when I tried to watch some anime, I decided to focus on listening to put a end on this. I’m a anime-based japanese learner, I have 2 folders full of HD anime that I downloaded from torrent, so I used animes, at first and just watch the anime and starting repeating shorts scenes over and over until I get most of it, I starting realizing a lot of words that I had never listened before just read, and become excited, after repeating a lot when I fell that my poor listening gave all its power I used the 字幕 from kitsunekko to learn new words and the “spoken versions” of words that I already know starting with サーバンドxサービス and ワタモテ. Now I feel way more fluent, can go through a anime and understand the big picture without having to repeat scenes or pausing to “digest” what I just listen, my word mining is all listening-based, now I watch a random anime or a scene of a anime and after that I use the subtitles (or look up some words that I listened if there’s no subtitles for that anime like I’m doing with ブッラドラッド) .

    Reading is just tough when you are a noob (no offence) and are getting used with kanji, after that it’s so easy that start to hold you back, you suggest every one who are already pass this phase to do the same, because of read one word you have little probability to hear it and almost no probability to use, but if you hear it you can both hear it again AND read it and it’s easier to go to your active vocabulary.

    My listening is now almost as good as my my reading, I feel better now cause if I’m watching a “samurai speaking” (like when I used subs2srsr with 神様はじめました) I know that I’m not understanding because my listening sucks but because I simply don’t know those words (yet).

    I still put them into anki just in case, but since I already re-watched the episodes or scenes several times I don’t even waste time coping definitions from dictionaries and most times I just quickly read the sentence and hit the “very easy” buttom

  5. 結構遅いけど助かるようにしたかったから・・・




    .card {
    font-family: arial;
    font-size: 20px;
    text-align: center;
    color: black;
    background-color: white;

    .card1 { background-color: #ebead3; }




    あなたのフィルドのように 字体とかフィルドの名前とか字体のサイズを変わってください

  6. If Kitsunekko doesn’t have Japanese subtitles for an anime I’m looking for how could I get the subtitles myself? Like, how could I extract the subtitles from a video file? The anime I’m looking for subtitles for is Kannazuki no Miko.

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