Let’s be real.
For many of those interested in learning Japanese, it all began with anime.
There’s nothing wrong with that. You’re among friends here.
However, watching anime can be a daunting method for beginners to try to learn by.
It’s all too easy to become absorbed in the show and become more engaged with the story, characters and setting than the language itself, reading the subtitles while the spoken Japanese passively slips in one ear and out the other, fading into the background.
In order to learn the language while watching anime, one must take a very active role in it.
But fear not, this can be made easier!
In this post, we’ll look at how you can use your favorite anime shows to actually learn Japanese.
By starting with some basic anime vocabulary, you can get more vocabulary back out of anime.
Let’s see how.
How Pre-learning Common Anime Words Can Greatly Improve Your Japanese Vocabulary
There are many words that will crop up consistently when you’re watching anime, not just your 俺 (おれ — I, masculine), ありがとう (thank you) and おはよう (good morning), but also several that are particular to genre. Having the ability to go into an episode armed with both language fundamentals and genre staples will drastically increase the number of words you can pick out in sentences.
Starting with a blank slate, it’s not really feasible to match the Japanese words you hear with the English subtitles you read without a dictionary. Even then it can be exceedingly difficult due to use of slang, set phrases and conjugations/declensions that are far cries from their root verbs and nouns.
However, knowing some frequently used words ahead of time removes unknowns from the sentences you’re hearing, making it simpler to pair the remaining ones. Not only that, but you’ll start to get a feel for the natural flow, usage and appropriate contexts of those words, thereby increasing your depth of understanding.
Familiarity with these common words plus a basic grasp of the grammar can turn a sentence from a string of indecipherable sounds into something recognizable. Even if you don’t know all of the words, you can use process of elimination to match them with the translated text, and bam!—you just learned another new word or two merely because you knew the other common words in the sentence.
How to Build Your Japanese Vocabulary Using Anime and Common Vocabulary
To go about this, it’s best to first acquaint yourself with the vocabulary below, becoming conversant in the sound of the Japanese words and their English meaning beforehand.
Then, watch a corresponding show with English subtitles on. The objective is that when the words are spoken, your ears will perk up from hearing the recognizable sound, and you’ll quickly find the corresponding English in the subtitles, making that electric connection of understanding. The constant repetition of these essential words throughout will solidify your knowledge of them.
You don’t necessarily have to have the vocabulary all handwritten out in a list next to you while watching, though of course that level of meticulousness will help, especially when it comes to learning less common words from this reduction approach.
You can keep this post open in another tab or on a mobile device if it helps. However, the important thing is really just to be familiar with the sounds and meaning—your brain will do the rest, galvanizing at something recognizable, like hearing your own name in a conversation you weren’t paying attention to.
This method can be adapted to be fairly genre-specific. Certain categories lend themselves more adeptly to learning words and phrases that you’re likely to use in daily scenarios. That doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t pick up useful vocabulary elsewhere—knowing the oft-repeated words in any genre will help you better understand and learn from anime of its kind.
You can make this kind of learning even more effective by using the short videos on FluentU, which include anime.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
All the videos have optional bilingual subtitles and quizzes available, making learning interactive and fun.
45+ Anime Vocabulary Words for Japanese Newbies
There is more anime in heaven and Earth, learner, than can be found on all of Crunchyroll and Toonami, though they are great places to find some of the below paradigmatic shows.
If you’re in the U.S. or Canada and looking for an easy way to buy DVDs of the following shows, Right Stuf Anime is your one stop shop. They give you free shipping with a big enough purchase, and they also have manga, books and games.
For every literary, theatrical and cinematographic category, there’s a corresponding one in anime—and maybe even a few extra. However, the two discussed here cover a wide swath of what’s readily available, largely familiar and of a reasonable difficulty for increasing your vocabulary.
Shounen — 少年 (しょうねん) / Young boys
All that being said, the most common, broad classification would have to be 少年 (しょうねん — young boy anime). This style is characterized by being action-oriented with a focus on growing in strength and maturity, friendship and rivalry, and whose target audience is primarily, as the name suggests, adolescent boys.
It’s also not particularly verbose, often utilizing imperatives like 止めろ/やめろ (stop/enough) and attack names such as 螺旋丸 (らせんがん — Spiraling Sphere).
However, in setting up the plot, the main character, and likely his 友達 (ともだち — friends) or 仲間 (なかま — comrades), will almost certainly discuss their 夢 (ゆめ — dream) to be 一番 (いちばん — the best/number one) at something.
It’s also nigh guaranteed that at some point there will be a 競争 (きょうそう — tournament) of some kind that’s supposedly 無理 (むり — impossible) for them to win, but with the 信じる (しんじる — belief) and encouragements like 頑張れ (がんばれ — do your best) and ファイト (ふぁいと — fight) of their companions, they’ll manage to 成功 (せいこう — succeed).
This style of anime doesn’t necessarily lend itself to providing the most useful daily vocabulary you can use in normal circumstances, but it’s not completely devoid of it either, and its less wordy nature makes it easier pick up new words in between the above staples. Not to mention the positive feeling of progress that motivates future learning when you’re watching a new show and you realize you can actually understand some of what’s being said.
Some classic and contemporary examples of this genre are “Dragon Ball,” “Naruto,” “Bleach,” “One Piece,” “Food Wars” and “My Hero Academia.”
Shoujo — 少女 (しょうじょ) / Young girls
For more relevant vocabulary, and with a more appropriate level of formality, we turn to 少女 (しょうじょ — young girl anime). This genre is identified by its focus on interpersonal relationships, romance and personal growth, often from a girl’s perspective since the shows are typically targeted at adolescent girls.
These tales typically take place in a 高校 (こうこう — high school), amongst 先生 (せんせい — teachers), 先輩 (せんぱい — upperclassmen), 後輩 (こうはい — underclassmen) and the infamous 転校生 (てんこうせい — transfer student)—perhaps with some 魔法 (まほう — magic) sprinkled in.
There may also be a focus on the 家 (うち — home) and 家族 (かぞく — family), with a お母さん (おかあさん — mother), お父さん (おとうさん — father), お兄さん / 弟 (おにいさん / おとうと — older/younger brother) and お姉さん / 妹 (おねえさん / いもうと — older/younger sister) 行ってきます (いってきます — leaving the house) and ただいま — (returning home), along with responses from those inside, such as 行ってらっしゃい (いってらっしゃい — take care) and お帰りなさい (おかえりなさい — welcome back).
Many of these stories will deal with confessions of 好き (すき — liking) or 愛してる (あいしてる — loving) someone, not uncommonly based on 約束 (やくそく — promises) from childhood or answering a cry for 助けて (たすけて — help).
Regardless of how it comes about, the dialogue will contain a preponderance of vocabulary we’re all intimately familiar with in our own relationships, from probing questions like どうしたの (what happened), 何ですか (what is it) and 何で (なんで — why), to evasive replies such as 何でもない (なんでもない — nothing), 大丈夫 (だいじょうぶ — it’s fine) and 別に (べつに — not particularly), to aggressive retorts including ばか (jerk), 嘘つき (うそつき — liar) and 面倒くさい (めんどうくさい — what a pain), to protests and declarations of remorse along the lines of ごめん (sorry), 待って (まって — wait) and 違う (ちがう — it’s not like that).
Still many more common words will appear in this type of show since its plot is usually less fantastical, or at least tries to keep this sort of thing a hidden aspect of the characters’ lives, allowing a sizable portion of the action to reflect an everyday slice of life. For that reason, it’s a more promising genre for learning words you can use in normal conversation. However, it’s more dialogue-heavy and may contain more complex sentence structures and syntax, so don’t get frustrated if you can only gather a few words here and there at first.
A few iconic anime in this vein are “Sailor Moon,” “Fruits Basket,” “Ouran High School Host Club,” “Boys Over Flowers” and “Honey and Clover.”
Where to Go from Here
When you’re ready for more of a challenge, escalate the target age group to something like 青年 (せいねん — young men), move on to manga to level up your kanji game or try out Japanese video games with the spoken language set to Japanese and the text set to English for a similar learning experience.
In the meantime, enjoy the satisfaction of recognizing and understanding some naturally spoken Japanese from your favorite shows!