Like this? You should see Tofugu’s “Studying Japanese With Drama Guide” – it’s like this post, but bigger (and better!).

Okay, so I’ve been known to say that people should get off the couch and stop claiming they were learning Japanese from watching anime with subtitles. I think 99% of the time this is still true, because most people aren’t actively studying with the subtitles (and instead just watching as much TV as possible catching a few things here or there, then using “learning” as an excuse for consuming so much media). Today I’m going to sort of take the opposite stance from where I usually am and tell you how I think you can use Japanese TV/movies/anime to learn Japanese, and subtitles actually play a big part in this, surprisingly!

Who This Is For

I don’t think everyone can use subtitles to learn Japanese. I’d say that someone who’s at more of an intermediate/advanced level will get way more out of this than someone who’s a beginner at Japanese (if you’re a beginner at Japanese, I recommend TextFugu to get started, especially if you’re self-teaching yourself). This is because it takes a while to be knowledgeable enough to actually be able to look things up, figure things out, and know what to search for when you need to find / learn something. If you don’t have this experience, learning from Japanese TV/Movies/Anime will most likely just be plain discouraging (and if it’s not, you’re probably not trying hard enough).

Update: Some good points made in the comments! Also good to be intermediate / advanced level before doing this because then you know about gendered language, how to avoid copying cartoony weird voices, and so on. You basically will have to knowledge to know what not to do while using this method!

Also, in terms of time spent, beginners will get a lot more out of other resources in the same amount of time (versus spending time watching video). Intermediate / advanced level Japanese students will get a lot more out of that same amount of time, making it a lot more worth while.

Where To Find Japanese Media

There are a bunch of ways to get your hands on Japanese television, movies, or anime, most of which I can’t really talk much about. A lot of Japanese movies can be bought on Amazon, in local video stores, and so on. There are even a good number of Japanese movies on Netflix. Of course, being the netizens that you are, I’m guessing you’re finding these things elsewhere. Point is, the Internet is a great place to find something interesting that you can study with. I’m sure a lot of you have many gigs of Japanese content on your computers already… all legal of course… ahem.

Now, I’d say there’s two kinds of content (at least in terms of this article), and that is hard subbed and soft subbed. We’re talking subtitles here, so we’ll ignore RAW (totally in Japanese, no subtitles) and save it for another day.

Soft subtitles are subtitles you can add and remove, whenever you want. They are sometimes separate files and sometimes part of the video file. You can use a player like VLC to play videos with subtitles (subtitles are under “video” in the menu).

Hard subtitles, on the other hand, are stuck on the video no matter what. You can’t remove them, and they’re part of the video itself. These are a little harder to work with, but do okay if that’s all you can find. If you can, though, seek out the soft subs as they tend to be better (but are a bit more rare, I’d say).

Either way, I think finding something will (hopefully) be the easiest part for you – using it to study is where things get difficult.

Studying With Subtitles

I’m sure there’s a billion ways to study with subtitles, but I think it comes down to a few important things.

  1. Being active in your learning (versus being passive)
  2. Watching the same thing multiple times
  3. Being at a high enough level to be able to use your content as a Japanese learning resource

Here’s the step by step of how I’d recommend using Japanese subtitles to study Japanese:

1. Break Things Up Into Chunks

Depending on your level, I’d make the chunks smaller rather than bigger. I’d say if you’re “intermediate” level, keep the chunks at 30 seconds to a minute. If you’re advanced, 2 minutes to 5 minutes. If you’re better than advanced, then you probably don’t need to read this article. Go enjoy some TV subtitle free.

I know that breaking things up into smaller pieces makes it hard to enjoy the content, but the goal is to get to the point where you can enjoy it without subtitles, so it’s important to take it a piece at a time. The less Japanese you know, the smaller the chunks (and goals) should be, so that way you don’t get discouraged (and ultimately just end up quitting or taking the easy way out).

2. Listen, Compare (To The Subs), And Write Down

This is where “being active” comes in. When using subtitles to study, it’s uber-important that you’re actively comparing and thinking about the subtitles versus what is actually spoken. When you’ve listened to it enough times, it’ll be time to write down the Japanese. I’d recommend using Evernote (read about Evernote and Japanese here and here) to write out the conversations.

If you’re at too low of a level, this becomes tough to do as well. Being able to listen, remember, then write down something gets easier the better you are at Japanese, so if you’re having trouble just know that it’ll get better the more you practice. It might be really tough at first, but things will start slowing down as you listen to more of it. Pains me to say this, but anime tends to do a better job enunciating and speaking slowly, so this may be a way to start out.

3. Shadow

Now that you have the Japanese written down, it’s time to shadow. Language shadowing is a pretty great way to practice, and if you do enough of it you will really start seeing it pay off. The idea is that you have both the audio and text of something (in the language that you’re learning). As you listen to the audio, you “shadow” by speaking along with it. The text is just there to help you along (until you don’t need it). You’re basically just learning to speak like the person who is speaking on screen.

4. Repeat Chunk After Chunk

Then, when you’ve mastered one chunk, you move on to the next chunk. Before you know it, you’ve finished an episode.

5. Watch It Raw (And Understand It!)

The last step, after you’ve gone through all of the chunks, is to go back and watch it raw (without subs). In theory, you should understand everything (and it should be a really good feeling of accomplishment too, I imagine!). You should also be able to speak along with the conversations, as well, if you want! If you have something that’s hard-subbed, you’ll just want to take another window on your computer and cover up the subtitles. If you’re watching on your television, then just tape some paper / cardboard over the screen to cover most of it up. Not the best viewing experience (why I recommend soft subs) but will totally work and get you the same results.

Then, Be Consistant

If there’s anything I talk about time and time again, it’s consistency. You’ll learn so much more by studying every day (versus studying ALL day Saturday, or something like that). It’s just how your brain works. Little accomplishments made over a long period of time equals huge results. If you do this every day, you’ll surely get better at Japanese. For Intermediate / Advanced students, it definitely would have the potential of taking you from intermediate→advanced or advanced→fluent.

Good luck, and please be active when you’re watching Japanese shows! :D

[yframe url=’’]

[Header Image]

  • Jack

    よし!!!finally another post, and I’m the first comment!!!!! これから、サブタイトルを使って見ます。この”ポスト”有り難うございます!

  • Brandon Buckley

    I been trying to explain this to my friend Tyler for a long time. We are a bunch of Otaku, but I don’t have to watch a lot of Anime to like it. Anyways back on topic, he watches tons and claims to pick things up while watching Anime, which he may but not to the level he gives it credit to. I myself have only picked up things while watching raw or covering up the subtitles with another window because I watch Anime Online a lot. ポストはいいですね!

  • Catherine44123

    ^^ This is great! Thanks! Even though I question the use of shadowing while doing this tecnique on anime, I’m not sure I want to end up speaking like a TV character.

  • koichi

    Yeah, true that – one more reason to only start doing this if you’re
    intermediate / advanced, so you know what to not do, too

  • William Crawford

    Have you ever heard of Subs2SRS?  It’s a program written by a Japanese studier that takes video with subtitles and breaks it up where the subtitles start and end.  
    I haven’t been a big fan of it (or SRS’ing in general) but many people rave about it.  It seems to fit in with this article, and it’s free, so I thought I’d mention it.

    Subs2SRS –

  • Yuzuru

    Anime *does* have the advantage of enunciation and slower speech, however, regular television (dramas, movies, etc. featuring live people) has the advantage of being able to watch mouths, throats, etc. to see the mechanical movements involved in saying things. In my opinion, this helps more than someone speaking more slowly.  But either way is great. I have nothing against either. I’m all for doing what you want to learn this language. ^^

  • David

     Anime *does* have the advantage of enunciation and slower speech,
    however, regular television (dramas, movies, etc. featuring live people)
    has the advantage of being able to watch mouths, throats, etc. to see
    the mechanical movements involved in saying things. In my opinion, this
    helps more than someone speaking more slowly.  But either way is great. I
    have nothing against either. I’m all for doing what you want to learn
    this language. ^^

  • Scott Lavigne

    I general use Japanese media as a “break” from studying. That is, since it’s in Japanese I can use it for learning, but don’t have to so I can take a break without feeling like im slacking. That being said if you do this, you can extend the actual time of your study, while still studying. I generally use this to practice listening by comparing what I hear and want to translate to the subtitles, though you have to get good at ignoring the subs. :P Of course you won’t always understand what they’re saying but it helps with you kind of learning to use context clues to assume the word you don’t know, as well as you can look at the subtitles and find that 1 word you didn’t know. Also when you see the subs its easy to not learn the Japanese if you are in a lazy mood, but also only pick out some col you’ve been wanting to learn but haven’t yet, as well as some col grammar. But like I said, I generally use it to relax and improve just listening in general while reinforcing. It’s always nice to get like 10-20 words and a few pieces of new grammar though.

  • Oleg Levy

    Is there a database of Japanese subtitles for Japanese movies somewhere? I think for beginners this is better because it helps you “hear”.


  • Oleg Levy

    Is there a database of Japanese subtitles for Japanese movies somewhere? I think for beginners this is better because it helps you “hear”.


  • Haley

    I have sort of been starting to do this when I watch anime. (Which isn’t that often, I prefer to attempt to read Japanese manga to learn new words, even though it’s kind of masochistic. XD;;; It takes a long time to draw and look up the new kanji with IME and a dictionary, but it’s also at my own pace). This is my process:

    1. Watch the episode in English with English subtitles. (If available.)
    2. Re-watch in Japanese with English subtitles. I pause each time a character is about to say something new, read the subtitles, then press play to listen intently to how the sentence sounds in Japanese.
    3. Write down words I catch on Wordpad and look them up with .
    4. Try to use some of the new words on my blog. (I’m grateful to Koichi for linking to this site on Tofugu.)

    It really helps me remember words better, especially when I look them up more than once and write them down a lot. I found Durarara!! is nice, because I can attempt to read what Celty writes on her cell phone in addition to listening.

    This also works with video games! Sometimes you can change the settings so the subtitles are in Japanese. c:

  • Guest

    lol can you imagine someone who learned like this from samurai movies, it’d be pretty funny to hear them speak. Though the news casts might be good, just super formal. 

  • Michael Warren

    Brilliant post. Couldn’t agree more about subs being more helpful for intermediate/advanced learners. When I was beginning to learn Japanese I watched a lot of TV and films, at the time I thought I would just learn by hearing Japanese. It wasn’t until I had learnt more Japanese that I could really appreciate and benefit from watching Japanese media

  • Lp1214

    I totally agree with you Koichi, I have been using japanese media to supplement my Japanese study for quite some time, It really helped me ease out of the beginner stage and more into intermediate stages, while also revealing important parts of Japanese culture.

  • koichi

    haha, true that… でござる。。。

  • Krolli

    This one is a little bit off topic, but I just felt like sharing.

    I finally realized what the hint about towel in the “About koichi” means. :)
    I hope you had a towel with you today. :P

  • Justin

    13 assassins was an amazing movie…

  • Meowcat


  • Ko

    Depending on how much I like the show and how much of a lazyass I’m being, sometimes I just watch a show once through raw and then watch it with subtitles after to kind of fill in the holes/slap myself for not getting things here and there the first time. Learn a lot of useless cop dorama lingo that way. 

    anyway this is a really good idea, and i’ll probably end up doing it your way. since that’s better.

  • Darkrosefalling

    One quick note-it should be “Timmy is WHOSE son.” and  not “Timmy is WHO’S son”.

  • koichi

    nnuuuuuuuuuuuu! too bad they’re hard subs QQ

  • murasaki

    Thank you for systematising this!  I have done a more informal version of this activity in other languages.  Can’t wait til I’m good enough to do it in Japanese!

  • Jack

    Sighhh…Most videos/films (that aren’t news clips) are too difficult to comprehend then write. まだ頑張ります

  • Alana Green

    I think learning from anime is more difficult.  I could pick up more from dramas, where they tend to use everyday words and the same words again and again.  Anime is out there and full of crazy useless Japanese.

  • rururu

    Well I study with Japanese subs… it’s so easy but with english subs it’s too much work.
    when i don’t have japanese subs i use korean subs that i google translate to japaneese because it’s so much more practical and helpful with learning japanese as compared to english subs

  • Bridget

    Nice post!!  I think the other thing that comes to mind when watching subtitled movies is that it’s a good way to see how someone translates phrases/ideas (especially idiomatic expressions and other stuff) Sometimes I’ll watch something w/ subtitles, and I’ll hear the Japanese, look at the subtitle and think, “huh, I wouldn’t have translated it exactly like that, but it works really well in this case.”

  • rururu
  • Howtwosavealif3

    Also instead of watching it multiple times you can listen to it multiple times.

    like if you use sub2srs to make audio clips and then join them togethre even more efficient listening

    but i should’ve mentioned sub2srs FIRST. it makes anki decks with subtitle file + video but it would work best with japanese subs obviously.


    sub2srs info + sub2srs decks:

  • Kelovar

    This post+video happens at a good moment for me, as I wanted to post an entry in my Japanese log about how watching anime becomes more and more interesting, the more I know about Japanese.

    Until 1-2 months ago, I was totally in the “passive” category. Now, I really still can’t make enough of it to do a script, but I recognize some words/sentences. For words, I am now saying many of them in French (or English) as soon as I hear them. For sentences, I often go back to listen to some of them that I think I should be able to understand.

    Every little thing I recognize in Japanese language is a small victory ^^ One example is when I heard this right after learning about the は and が particles. During this week, I heard a こうえんにいきたかった right after doing the Textfugu chapter on desire; I was very happy. It also proves I am doing well, I guess.

    So yeah, I’m moving toward the active side of watching anime to help with my learning of Japanese. Watching anime is more fun than it ever was in the 10 last years, thanks to those small victories, which are quickly increasing in number (hopefully up to the point where I can grasp most of what they say!).

    Oh small question about something I heard in an anime. After talking about economy, a guy switched topic by asking how the other guy’s wife was:
    I listened to that sentence 10+ times because I thought I had probably heard it wrong, but I don’t get why he used the を particle with an adjective. I’ll be thankful to whoever can help me with this one. ^^

  • Kelovar

    Woah, that is an interesting tool. I’m bookmarking this as I’ll try it when I’ll be slightly better. Thanks!

  • Ponyo

    Great post. TV was how I learned English as a second language (though I admit that would be impossible to do with Japanese), so it’s still a big part of how I study. I think it’s very important to listen to spoken, colloquial Japanese, and, if you don’t live in Japan or have Japanese friends/family members, TV is the best way to go. Jdrama/movies more so than anime, where everybody talks funny. But yeah, this will only work if combined with good old textbook studying and flashcard drilling. You’d probably get the same (bad) results relying solely on textbooks, too — variety is good!

  • 白小狼

    Actually, there is a manga/drama series which is somewhat about that!  (more for upper level students though).  It’s called “日本人の知らない日本語” (The Japanese that Japanese people don’t know).  

    The manga is a comic essay written by a Japanese woman who teaches Japanese in Japan to foreigners from around the world, and she does have students who learned Japanese from Samurai/yakuza movies (and therefore speak funny), students obsessed with ninja, otaku, super serious businessmen, etc, and it talks a lot about the problems that foreigners around the world (not just from the US) might have with learning Japanese, and about the Japanese culture.The drama is also quite good, and keeps most of the students and a lot of the jokes the same, but gives it more of a coherent narrative and changes the teacher to a young, somewhat unwilling girl who gets tricked into teaching Japanese to foreigners even though she has no experience in it.  The drama also slightly deals with discrimination that foreigners living in Japan might deal with.I highly recommend them both.  You can find English subtitles for the drama, but the manga is Japanese only (since it also goes into historical explanations of things like origins of words and kanji, it’d be somewhat harder to translate IMO).

  • 白小狼

    For me, when I was actually trying to learn from watching anime, it wasn’t about taking a few minutes and watching it over and over until I got it, because I knew that for me personally I would just forget the earlier parts of the movie by the time I got to the end.  I would just listen and if there was something that I really wanted to learn how to say, I would learn it.  Like, the first time I was watching spirited away in Japanese, Chihiro says to the owner of the bathhouse “ここで働かせてください” (please let me work here).  At the time I did not know how to say “let me ___” or “Make someone _____,” but after hearing that, I looked up the ending, and found an article on the causative tense in Japanese that more or less let me learn it immediately.  Beforehand, I wouldn’t have known where to look for that if I’d wanted to say it, because I didn’t know the words “causative tense”  were used to describe that kind of structure.

    Also, when reading manga, I’m more at a point where unless the content matter is extremely technical or series-specific, I can usually understand the main idea behind a  majority of the dialogue, so in my case, if I can understand most of what they are saying, even if I can’t get EVERY word, I just keep on reading.  If I get to a part where I really don’t know what they are saying, then I look up the particular word or phrase that is keeping me from understanding.

    But yes, this is definitely only possible for people at at least an intermediate level.

  • Lindsay

    There IS this:

  • susanne

    Well, actually, watching a movie in a mostly forgotten foreign language using subitles of another, rather better known foreign language is also lot’s of fun, learning included. But only after a couple of watched movies, I found out. 
    At first, it was completely confusing, since the subtitles often don’t match the speaking or just ignore certain or many aspects of the spoken text.
    Though, it got better for me and I’m enjoying learning French and English by watching French movies using English subtitles :-)

    This is much more amazing than all those dull dubbed movies on TV – there seem to be like only a handful of female and male synchronize speakers available and their languages sound awfully uniform, even though, there are like a zillion of distinguishable dialects spoken.

    Hopefully, there is the same effect in the near future, watching Japanese movies and anime with English or maybe (not) French subitles. Or English, French or Spanish  movies using Japanese subtitles. Or whatever combination I can think of.

    So far I picked up some everyday Japanese expressions by watching Japanese Movies using English subtitles. On serveral occasions, I noticed different flavors of word-endings like ohajo, ohajogoseimas, ohajogoseimasu (it’s my own phonetics).
    Eventually I hope, I don’t out myself as Otaku, Samurai, Miyazaki or Koreeda because of watching movies in the original language ;->

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been watching Japanese for years and have never done that. Very good idea though! 
    I probably wouldn’t be able to do it every day but it would be good to do when I’m in the mood :D

    I still think it’s possible to learn while not using this technique but I’d say you’d learn 20 times more from this technique. I’ve just balanced that out by watching 20 times more TV over the years^^

  • Seelard

    You can learn Japanese from anime on a decent efficiency only if you use Japanese subtitles. Subtitles for the hearing impaired can help a lot when you did not catch exactly what they were saying, it is really very useful. With English subtitles it is not very effective.

  • Ali

    I find watching Japanese media with _Japanese_ subtitles helps a lot more. It gives you reading practice and let’s you guess at meanings of new words you don’t understand just by listening.

  • Jim

    I personally think at some point more “traditional” (teachers, classrooms, learning grammar, etc) will become less useful. Then you’d probably would have to read books, watch movies, or listen to music of that particular language to move forward I guess. Still, it probably doesn’t beat going to a country and interacting with native speakers.

  • Jim

    I personally think at some point more “traditional” (teachers, classrooms, learning grammar, etc) will become less useful. Then you’d probably would have to read books, watch movies, or listen to music of that particular language to move forward I guess. Still, it probably doesn’t beat going to a country and interacting with native speakers.

  • Howtwosavealif3
  • Jason

    You will never learn Japanese by watching Japanese anime/movies/drama with subtitles..

    you will only learn if you turn the subtitles off.

    Because if you watch with subs….you will just depend on them. You will actively listen as much. And in the end, you will remember the movie not in Japanese, but in English.

  • Robert Claypool

    Tenchi the Movie 2: Daughter of Darkness, is the only US release I know of that has Japanese subtitles. Anyone know of others?

  • belgand

     Well… maybe not Excel Saga. I’d kind of like to see someone who learned to speak Japanese by shadowing that.

  • Nami Russo

    Thanks, Koichi-san – this was helpful. My family thinks I’m nuts anyway because I can’t stop yelling at myself but now they’ll really think I’ve gone over the edge shadowing myself with Japanese news. What the heck are those people talking about anyway? If anything, your humor (or Timmy) has uplifted my spirits and given me encouragement for a translating job I have for Monday. 

  • mrmiyagi

    Another place to study Japanese from subtitles:

  • a

    Please, stop watching anime illegally

  • laura.

    i read somewhere on a blog that they watch .mkv files with the english subtitle delayed 1 second or something so they cancheck whether their guess/thought is right.

  • peteykun

    2 years too late but that was probably 「あの。。。おくさまお元気ですか。」.