Tired of learning Japanese with textbooks?
Get yourself out of your language learning rut by getting into anime.
Maybe you’re still skeptical.
You’re wondering, “is it really possible to learn the essentials of the Japanese language through anime?”
It’s a simple but contentious question that has sparked countless heated exchanges between Japanese learners around the world.
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
The Challenges of Learning Japanese Through Anime
First, anyone who’s ever tried to watch anime shows outside of Japanese knows that this can be a bit tricky. You need to find the right streaming site for each anime that you’re trying to watch, and all your favorite anime shows aren’t always in the same place. If you want to buy a DVD version of your anime, the challenge grows—you have to find discs that are compatible with your DVD player in the United States, and the seller has to actually be willing to ship them to your faraway address. A great solution for this is Right Stuf Anime, an online seller of all things anime that’s based in the United States.
Once you’ve got your anime, there are some linguistic challenges that you’ll face. But we’ve got you covered!
Japanese is an honorific language with different ways of speaking. Think about it this way: you speak differently with your superiors at work than your do with close friends and family, right? Japanese takes this to another level. You have to change the way you speak to someone depending on your relationship, but it transcends the straightforward distinction between formal and casual; your language will change between talking to a friend, family member, work colleague, manager, or customer.
Meanwhile, the characters in anime live in their own universe, where everyone tends to use slang, casual language, informal pronouns, and even made up words.
So, if this is the case, how can anime be a helpful tool?
The bottom line here is that you need to be aware of the kind of Japanese you’ll absorb in anime-world. As long as you don’t lose sight of your ultimate Japanese language goal – to speak fluently and properly in any situation – anime Japanese definitely has a place in your language learning progress.
Too often, Japanese teachers encounter eager anime fans who were inspired to learn Japanese from their favorite programs. They sit on the edges of their seats, bursting with excitement to show off the words and phrases they learned while watching anime. Imitating anime characters leaves you speaking like a child or a rude street punk – they go on without ever knowing the true meaning of their words and tone. This can be frustrating for both teachers and peers, since these student are clearly out of touch with the complicated realities of the Japanese language.
It is possible to avoid all this while learning Japanese through anime. There are two main approaches you can take:
1. Start with anime incorporated into your language learning routine from the beginning. If you choose this route, you must always be aware of the casual nature of anime-speak.
2. Wait until you have achieved an intermediate level of Japanese to actively utilize anime as a learning tool. By the time you are an intermediate student, you will have a solid foundation to work with and will not become confused by casual tone, slang, and invented vocabulary. This comes more highly recommended.
There are a few more points of distinction to be made between anime Japanese and real life Japanese:
- Don’t adopt a new vocabulary word from an anime until you are certain of its meaning. For example, the main character of Naruto signs off his sentences with a gibberish word, だってばよ” (dattebayo). This word is meaningless to most native Japanese speakers
- Don’t expect real life Japanese to sound just like anime Japanese. You may rarely hear the polite endings desu (です) or –imasu (-います) in an anime. Many anime fans think they already know correct Japanese speech before formally studying the language, but this is often not the case.
- Don’t study Japanese for the purpose of watching anime. You will be learning lots of important elements of language that you’ll never once hear in anime, and this can be disappointing.
Hang on a second – you might be wondering why all this doesn’t mean that anime is a lousy learning tool. As long as you mind the aforementioned caveats and totally commit yourself to learning proper, real world Japanese, anime can be a helpful tool as opposed to a distraction.
Why You Should Learn Japanese With Anime
Really, it ain’t all bad! Anime has a lot to offer any budding Japanese student. It’s sort of similar to how you’ve been watching Japanese dramas and movies to learn. Settling in with a bowl of popcorn to watch your new favorite program is certainly a break from your ordinary language learning routine of scribbling alphabets into a notebook, copying grammar charts, and attempting to cram more vocabulary into your brain.
It’s going to be even easier since you’ve learned how to study Japanese with subtitles. Kick back, relax, switch those subtitles on, and enjoy the many benefits of watching anime.
Practice your listening skills.
Despite some noteworthy differences, anime Japanese is, obviously, real Japanese. This means that you will have the opportunity to reinforce your listening for vocabulary, grammar, and speech patterns.
Learn about Japanese culture through anime.
It’s not something that only children watch – it’s a cultural obsession. As you walk the electric streets of Tokyo, anime characters spring out at you from every direction. There are statues, paintings, posters, billboards, advertisements, stuffed animals, and virtually all possible kinds of merchandise prominently displaying popular anime characters. Large crowds of people dress up anime style and congregate in downtown Tokyo on a weekly basis. The artistry and storytelling which characterizes anime permeates every aspect of modern Japanese culture. Watching anime will bring you closer to understanding various aspect of Japanese history and society.
There’s an anime for everyone.
Did you know the Pokemon itself is a true-blue anime? You might have been a fan all along without even realizing it. That’s okay, it’s pretty normal – lots of newcomers to anime are under the impression it’s just about samurai adventures or the antics of high school girls. In reality, anime comes in all imaginable flavors: romance, action, adventure, horror, comedy, sports, spaghetti western, historical – you name it, there’s an anime in that genre. That means you can pick whatever is most fun for you to watch!
Tips and Tricks for Learning Japanese with Anime
1. High quality anime means high quality learning.
There’s tons of anime out there. While this means you have lots of options available, on the downside you will have to filter through a lot of shows using uncommon Japanese. The worst offenders are often science fiction and fantasy anime shows. The more outlandish the anime, the more likely you will hear rather unusual Japanese. As a first step, when you are looking at prospective anime for the purpose of learning everyday Japanese, you should steer clear of anything involving giant space robots, magic powers, fantasy worlds and ghosts. Three broad anime themes can be trusted to have more normal, casual language, and are generally the best choices for learning Japanese: high school, detective dramas, and sports.
2. Watch actively, not passively.
It isn’t enough to just catch the gist of what the anime characters are saying and doing. Really pay attention. Writing will help you remember your new words for later. When you pick up on grammar, vocabulary, or speech patterns that you recently learned while studying, take note to strengthen this concept in your mind. If you hear something odd that you haven’t learned yet, jot this down in a notebook and look it up later. Don’t get too obsessed with understanding every little detail from the get-go – complete comprehension will take time and practice. Just do your best to fill in the blanks as you go along.
3. Double-check what you’ve learned.
Now you should be fully aware that anime Japanese is not to be fully trusted – it can be hard to tell if you’re hearing made up words or silly, messed-up grammar. When you encounter something new, remember to cross-check your notes with online Japanese language guides and ensure that everything is accurate, real world Japanese.
4. Listen carefully.
For all of the tips given in this post there is a common theme: you have to listen. One of the best reasons to watch anime is to develop your listening skills. Try not to rely on subtitles more than you need to.
5. Use the accompanying manga to aid in comprehension.
Manga refers to graphic novels. One fun approach is to buy the manga version of your new favorite anime program (the original Japanese version tends to be very cheap in Japan) and read it first. While you may be tempted to cheat and buy the English manga, Japanese manga generally always have hiragana written over kanji, allowing for easy comprehension. If you are intermediate and above, challenge yourself with Japanese manga is a must. It’s a great way to strengthen your reading skills! Anime tends to follow manga dialogue relatively closely, so you’ll basically have a script to follow along with while watching the show.
6. Try Using FluentU
If all of this sounds like a lot of work, and you’re looking for a shortcut, then I’m happy to tell you that there is.
FluentU helps you learn Japanese with real-world videos like music videos, commercials, movie trailers, and yes, anime. FluentU has interactive captions that let you instantly look up words. Every word comes with useful example sentences. You can even see how that word is used in other videos. Of course, you can add words to your vocab list for later review.
And that’s not all. FluentU has a “learn mode” that turns the videos into language learning experiences. Basically, it’s a quiz that gives you questions that use video context. And the video clips that are shown to you are fully personalized, based on your previous history on the site.
17 Great Anime Shows for Japanese Language Learners
We’ve selected a broad variety of great anime shows. The top of the list starts with that tend to be more useful for learning everyday Japanese. In the middle of the list, we also introduce popular series that feature flying superheroes and robots, in case you’d like to indulge yourself.
1. スケット・ダンス (Sket Dance)
“Sket Dance” is an anime set in high school which was on TV between 2011 and 2012. One of the main characters is voiced by the main character of “Gintama.” The more anime you watch, the more you’ll notice the overlap in voice actors! In this energetic anime, we follow a trio of high school students determined to solve any problem that besets them in their daily lives. Enjoy their escapades while learning school vocabulary!
2. スクールランブル (School Rumble)
This anime aired for a few seasons 2004. It’s a romantic high school drama with a female protagonist. The story focuses on good old-fashioned high school drama as she navigates the choppy waters of love and friendship. Due to the nature of the plot, the language revolves a lot around casual talk between close friends. Try this useful vocabulary out while chatting up your own friends!
3. 氷菓 (Ice)
“Ice” is actually an ongoing novel series, the first book was published in 2001, and since 2012 it has been adapted into a manga. At the same time, an anime version was made which has a scant 22 episodes. Join Hotaro as he participates in the high school literature club and solves perplexing mini-mysteries around campus. The language can sometimes be a little complex, but each episode has a very intriguing story.
4. けいおん (K-On!)
Look at those happy girls! Don’t you already want to watch? This series also began as a popular manga. Four high school girls form a band and dream of super-stardom. Watch their struggle to master their instruments and become the best of the best. The vocabulary is less focused on high school and homework since the anime revolves around their musical careers.
5. 名探偵コナン (Detective Conan)
Conan is without doubt the most famous detective in Japan; he not only appears in anime and manga but also in live action TV shows and more. Since the first episode in 1996 over 700 episodes have aired. The focus of the story are the adventures Conan, a high school detective named for Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes. He was transformed into a child, but still devotes his time to solving crimes and nabbing the bad guys.
6. ルパン三世 (Lupin III)
“Lupin III” is a mystery anime which follows the adventures of a master thief. Again, this is an extremely popular anime which has been adapted into several formats and is well known across Japan. Lupin is considered to be the world’s greatest thief and along with his friends he pulls off the greatest thefts around the world while chased by inspector Zenigata. A very popular movie about Lupin was made by Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki under the title “The Castle of Cagliostro.”
7. テニスの王子様 (The Prince of Tennis)
This manga and anime is considered to be the main reason why many Japanese people became interested in tennis. The manga started in 1999 and the anime from 2001 to 2005, and then a new series started in 2012. The story focuses on tennis players and their desire to improve and win tournaments.
8. スラムダンク (Slam Dunk)
“Slam Dunk” is one of the best-selling manga series in history with over a hundred million manga books sold and the anime was aired from 1993 to 1996. Sakuragi joins the school basketball team and together with his teammates create a top basketball team with the goal of becoming the best in Japan. In certain polls it has been voted as the top manga in history and one of the top anime of all time.
9. ワンピース (One Piece)
In any discussion with an anime or manga fan, you’ll hear tell of “One Piece.” This is pretty much the ultimate anime, the first episode came out in 1999 and it is still going strong, expected to last a few more years. In addition there have been twelve movies. The story follows the adventures of pirate Monkey D. Luffy and his crew in their search for a famous treasure called “one piece,” as well as Luffy’s desire to become the pirate king.
10. ナルト (Naruto)
This is another long running anime, the first episode of the first series appeared on our screens in 2002 and the second series has been running since 2007. Naruto starts off as a boy training to be a ninja, however he is an orphan and the circumstances surrounding his birth hide a dark secret not commonly known amongst his classmates. The first series sees Naruto make his first friends, and lose his best friend. The second series picks up two and half years later and sees Naruto and his friends become fully proficient ninjas who eventually join in a great war. It is best to be aware of some made up language, such as Naruto’s signature phrase dattebayo, but generally it is easy to understand.
11. ブリーチ (Bleach)
This anime series ran from 2004 to 2012 and is consistently ranked as a favorite by many anime fans. Ichigo Kurosaki becomes a substitute soul reaper by chance; he lives in the world of the living while soul reapers live in a spirit world. The purpose of the soul reapers is to fight “hollows,” the souls of people who died but did not, or could not, move on to the next world. Eventually these lost spirits would turn bad and become evil creatures with great strength. Ichigo and his friends fight to protect both the human world and the spirit world. Altogether there are 366 episodes and although the language used can be a little complicated sometimes, such as describing different worlds and abilities, it is very enjoyable and an addictive anime to watch.
12. 銀魂 (Gintama)
“Gintama” is not as well-known as the previous three, and in terms of language it is quite challenging, but it is truly one of the funniest animes out there. In a fictional world, the country of the samurai was invaded by aliens. Twenty years later, Gintoki Sakata is one of the last samurai who constantly has a wooden sword by his side. He is joined by three sidekicks, along with their giant pet, to offer their services; basically they will do anything for money. The language can be quite hard to follow at times as their work can literally be anything from working in a shop to being hosts at a bar. However, there is always a large dose of humor which makes every new situation as enjoyable as the last.
13. ドラゴンボール (Dragon Ball)
This anime incorporates four different series with the first one running between 1986 and 1989, and the latest one from 2009. The story starts with a boy called Goku and a girl called Bulma on a quest to find the seven dragon balls. Goku ends up getting trained in martial arts, and along with his friends goes on a series of adventures including participating in tournaments. Goku eventually becomes a guardian of earth. This is a truly iconic anime, partly due to how many years it has been running and the international popularity it has accrued.
14. ソードアート・オンライン (Sword Art Online)
“Sword Art Online” is an example of a new generation of manga and anime which feature a more up to date world. In 2022 a new game is about to go online, one that uses a virtual reality helmet that literally puts people into the game, however at the end of the first day no one can log out. An announcement by the game’s creator, Akihiko Kayaba, then tells them that they won’t become free until the game is completed. The story follows Kazuto Kirigaya, ‘Kirito,’ as over the subsequent years he fights, makes friends and falls in love, the whole time stuck in the game. It is an interesting mix of action, friendship and love.
15. 進撃の巨人 (Attack on Titan)
This anime ran from April to September 2013 and was so popular that it is now being adapted for the big screen. The plot centers on Eren Yeager alongside his adopted sister Mikasa Ackerman, and their friend Armin Arlert. Humanity is under attack by massive titans and have been forced to shelter behind giant walls, after the wall is breached in his hometown Eren’s mother is killed and he vows vengeance. This rather short but intense anime is really enjoyable and the language is fairly straightforward.
16. ゲットバッカーズ –奪還屋 (GetBackers)
“GetBackers” was adapted for television in 2002 and last until 2003. Although it only consists of 49 episodes the story can be quite complex and unusual at times. Ginji Amano and Ban Mido are two powerful people known as GetBackers. For a price, they will go into the more dangerous parts of Tokyo to retrieve stolen or lost things. One mission leads them deep into a mass of buildings known as the Limitless Fortress. Watch to find out more!
17. しろくまカフェ (Polar Bear’s Café)
“Polar Bear’s Café” may appear to be slightly more childish and for a younger audience compared to other anime, but it is surprisingly fun. The plot is centered on a polar bear that runs a café (as you may have guessed), a young panda and a penguin. Together with their friends they discuss life, do silly animal things and enjoy life. The language is quite easy to follow, but at the same time they do introduce a lot of vocabulary. For example, the polar bear adores bad puns where he pretends to mishear a word and his friends keep correcting him. Truly one for all ages!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
And One More Thing…
If you love learning Japanese with anime, then I would be remiss not to tell you also about the the FluentU app.
Like the website, the FluentU app takes real-world videos like music videos, commercials, news, and inspiring talks and turns them into Japanese learning experiences. It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn Japanese as it’s spoken in real life.
The FluentU app has a broad range of contemporary videos – like music videos, dramas, TV shows, and TV commercials:
FluentU makes these native Japanese videos understandable with interactive transcripts. Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
All definitions have multiple examples, and they’re written to for Japanese learners. You can add words you’d like to review to a vocab list.
And FluentU’s learn mode turns every video into a language learning lesson. When answering questions, you can swipe left or right to see more examples.
The most interesting part is that FluentU keeps track of your vocabulary, and it suggests content and examples based on the words you’re learning. You’ll have a 100% personalized experience.
The FluentU App is now available for iPhone, but it’s also accessible as a website that you can use with your computer or tablet. And if you’re an Android user, fear not—our Android app is currently in the works!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.