From Loving Japanese Media to Studying It Turn your hobby into knowledge

    If you’re like me, you’ve spend a fair amount of time engrossed in Japanese games, anime, music and dramas. At first, it’s great. Everything’s new and exciting, a breath of fresh air from the usual stuff your country gets. But eventually, the stuff you normally have access to can start to get a little trite, especially if your interests lie outside whatever’s currently popular.

    How come nobody’s localizing that text heavy visual novel you had your heart set on? Where’s all the fansubs for 70s shoujo anime? And would it kill a person to translate the lyrics of songs other than AKB48? It’s around this time when you may hit upon the bright idea of “hey, maybe I should figure out what they’re saying!” Well, this guide is for you, based on my own experiences in transitioning from consumer to student. For more general learning guides, check out Tofugu’s recommended resources.

    Learn to Unlearn

    You’ve probably spent a fair amount of time listening to Japanese, and have managed to pick up on a few words and phrases. In that case, I have some good news, and some bad news.

    The bad news is that some of what you know is wrong. This can take the form of misheard words, incorrect grammar, or even not knowing when certain phrases are appropriate to say. After all, politeness is big in Japan. You don’t want to be dropping any kisamas or omaes in polite company.

    Screenshot from an anime with a translator note about the word ‘omae’ being and honorific
    Seems legit.

    While you might not feel too good after learning that “kimochi” just means “feeling” and not “feels good,” it’s important to keep an open mind when learning. Subtitles and translations are for entertainment, not education. It’s unfortunate, but there are just some things you’re going to have to unlearn.

    The good news is that you’ve had plenty of practice with what you do know. Personally, I don’t consider anything to be “learned” until I’ve read about it in a textbook or flashcard and spent some time practicing it. Normally, it would go in that order. Learn something, then memorize it. But there’s no reason it couldn’t be the other way around. You can use your experience to give you an edge in learning new vocabulary and grammar.

    Kanji First, Vocab After

    Some people don’t like kanji. OK, that’s an understatement. A lot of people despise kanji. And why shouldn’t they? There’re thousands of them, and they all have, like, a million strokes each! Reading would be easy without kanji. Totemo easy!

    I mean, if I’m learning vocabulary, why should I have to worry about one more thing? Why not just learn vocabulary on its own, and worry about kanji later? It’ll be easy, just come up with mnemonics. For every single word in the Japanese language.

    Anime character nervous about writing something
    Just 24,543 more mnemonics to go!

    That’s how I tried to learn vocabulary. Courage is “yuuki” because “YOU need a lot of courage to KEY people’s cars”. Weather is “tenki” because “you take TEN KEYS in case you lose a few in the bad weather”. Heaven is “tengoku” because “TEN GOKUs are flying around Heaven, and I guess I watched a few episodes of Dragon Ball once”.

    So what’s the problem? Well, take a look at how those three words are spelt with kanji:

    1. 勇気ゆうき
    2. 天気てんき
    3. 天国てんごく

    Notice a bit of repetition? This is where kanji comes in handy. Instead of creating one mnemonic per vocab word, create one per kanji. It’ll be more work at first, since each vocab word would use new kanji, but you’ll soon reach the point where one new kanji means several new words, just by combining it with kanji you’ve already learned before. There are certain jukugo (kanji compounds) that use different pronunciations, but this method covers the majority of vocab.

    This will also help with learning the meaning, too. Aside from a few exceptions, most jukugo make sense, or at least have kanji relevant enough that you’ll be able to remember the meaning. And it beats out trying to make a story about keys for every jukugo that contains 気.

    Trust the SRS

    Alright, so you’ve done everything you were supposed to. You made sure your big list-of-words-learned-from-anime was accurate to real life. You ditched learning vocabulary mnemonics for kanji mnemonics. You’ve even grabbed one of the many spaced repetition systems to help memorize your kanji and vocab. And now you just can’t get that one answer right.

    Screenshot of someone getting an answer wrong on WaniKani
    Not even close.

    What gives? It’s not like the mnemonic is bad, or it’s a particularly difficult item, it just isn’t sticking. It happens. I’ve run into this problem dozens of times. And you know what I find helps? Nothing.

    Wait, hold on, let me phrase that better. I do nothing, and the SRS adjusts itself so the item again sooner. This might seem obvious, seeing as how this is the entire reason the SRS was made in the first place, but less obvious is just how well it works. Without even having to go back and review the mnemonic or do any extra studying, you’ll learn the item, just because it keeps popping up over and over and over, like a bad filler episode.

    Other Tips

    Rikaichan for Firefox and Rikaikun for Chrome is a great way to quickly look up words you don’t know, but limit its use. Try to read the sentence a few times before using it. You can also set it to only display readings, instead of meanings.

    For gamers, importing Japanese games is a good way to start immersion. The PlayStation 3*, PlayStation Portable, PlayStation Vita, and all Nintendo handhelds prior to the 3DS are region free (save for certain games on DSi), meaning you can play import games with no hassle. Other systems require workarounds of varying difficulties. Certain games, such as the upcoming Pokemon X & Y, can have their language changed to Japanese.

    *(Note that the PS3 version of Persona 4 Arena is region locked, but allows the text and voices to be changed to Japanese.)

    A Japanese game with Bruce Willis on the cover
    Japanese language learning, featuring Japanese Bruce Willis.

    For music, I like to type out lyrics to songs with furigana for kanji I don’t know yet. Then, every month or so, go through the lyrics and remove the furigana from the kanji I’ve learned. Perhaps not the most educational of activities, but it’s a fun way to go over kanji and see your progression.

    For movies, try finding movies you enjoy dubbed into Japanese. Remember, you’re looking for 日本語吹替版にほんごふきかえばん, dubbed versions, not 字幕版しまくはん, subtitled versions. You can find movies on sites like, or digital copies on the iTunes store, but be careful with iTunes. Unlike other regions, the Japanese iTunes doesn’t allow you to redownload purchased movies. Make sure you back up! Don’t want to lose access to Japanese Bruce Willis.