3 Simple Steps to Learn Japanese Vocabulary Through Anime, TV and Movies

With just a little bit of structure, anyone can use their favorite anime, TV shows or movies to build Japanese vocabulary.

The process doesn’t have to be complicated or scary—you just need a little bit of discipline.

In fact, I use a simple three-step process to learn words from these types of sources. Let’s check it out!


1. Pick Your Show/Movie

It may sound easy, but this is the step many people screw up.

Should you pick a show or movie you absolutely love? A boring one that’s great for studying? Or something in between?

There’s a balance that must be struck, and that balance depends greatly on your personal study habits and your level. Here are some tips to finding the right show for you.

Stick to your level or slightly above your level

Some people choose shows that are too difficult. Perhaps they have a large appetite and want to make lots of progress quickly. Or perhaps they overestimate the time it takes to learn from these shows.

The problem with choosing shows that are too difficult is that the short-term progress usually takes longer than people expect.

The result? People get discouraged and may even burn out.

But picking a show that’s too easy can have a similar effect, for different reasons. You may find the material super easy. Then it’s possible to get lazy or overconfident and become discouraged when faced with real-world situations or more difficult material.

So it’s best to pick something appropriate for your level. If you’re a beginner, for instance, appropriate shows may be kids cartoons, such as “My Neighbor Totoro” or “Grave of Fireflies.”

If looking for appropriate anime, this ultimate guide on anime genres is the perfect place to start.

Try to find something entertaining and useful

Another common mistake is choosing shows strictly for their educational value. For example, some people may study news programs or documentaries because they offer a wealth of challenging vocabulary.

But part of the reason this technique works so well is because it’s entertaining. If you don’t find the material entertaining, you’re less likely to immerse yourself in it, enjoy it and learn from it.

If you swing too far the other way, you may be overwhelmed with useless or irrelevant vocabulary.

I love “Ghost in the Shell,” a hardcore science fiction anime. But it really doesn’t add much valuable vocabulary. Many of the words are technical, irrelevant or even made-up.

After all, how often are you going to say “cybernetic” in daily conversation?

The best shows are those based in the real world, since they offer common vocabulary you can immediately use the next time you talk to someone. Any show that takes place in the contemporary world, for example, is ideal. You’re more likely to come across mannerisms and vocabulary that people use in real life.

Pick more than one show, then give them test runs

The right show can teach you a core of useful vocabulary, but don’t obsess over that one show if you can help it. Besides, the more you diversify your shows, the more you diversify your vocabulary.

Try to pick two or three shows that are useful and entertaining. Then incorporate them into your study routine (see below for more on that).

Test the shows out and see how much you understand. Different people have different recommendations about how much you should understand a show in order to get value from it. One person may tell you 50%, another 80% and someone else may say less.

Keeping in mind the above tip that you shouldn’t pick something too hard, give the shows or movies a test run and ask yourself if you’ll stick with them long enough to actually learn something.

2. Build a Vocabulary List During the Show

Okay, now that you’ve got your shows/movies picked out, it’s time to learn something.

It’s not enough to simply watch the show or movie, though; you do have to work at it in order to learn something. Here’s what I recommend:

The list is your best friend

Start out by making a vocabulary list while listening and include every word you don’t know.

I personally don’t believe in such a thing as “over-stuffing” your brain, but if that worries you, cut out words you deem irrelevant—especially if you are in school.

Keep your list simple and straightforward. Write down the kanji and furigana on one side, and the English translation on the other.

And if you’re a beginner who’s afraid of kanji, don’t worry about memorizing the kanji. Learning kanji is a completely separate ballgame, but just writing them out will help ease your fear and can supplement your other studies.

Use an electronic dictionary or app

I have an ancient Seiko that I use. It’s an electronic dictionary intended for Japanese students, but it includes a variety of functions: a kanji dictionary, a Japanese-English dictionary, a Japanese-Japanese dictionary, an English-Japanese dictionary and even an English-English dictionary.

I look up and write the words on the fly, rather than pausing each time I come across a word I don’t know.

Yes, this means lots of words are missed. But it doesn’t bother me, since I can watch each episode of “Death Note” several times without getting bored.

Each time I re-watch the show/movie and come across a word I haven’t learned yet, I’ll add it to the list.

If you prefer to pause the show or movie in order to write down words, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. This approach would allow you to create a pretty complete list after a single viewing.

3. Effectively Use Your List to Learn from It

As I mentioned earlier, you can’t just watch a show and expect to learn much from it.

Immersion works, but active studying accelerates that process. So here are just a few ways to learn from your list:

Re-watch and review

Every time you watch your show or movie, review your list before and after viewing.

One of the best ways to review a list is by using flashcards, a time-tested approach that will definitely help you learn the vocabulary.

Personally, I’m too lazy to write out a flashcard for every term. Instead I take a sheet of paper and cover up one side of the list, then go down the English or Japanese list once or twice in order to trigger my memory.

This technique uses the same essential mechanism as flashcards. But it does lack a few benefits that flashcards provide, such as randomness and the ability to focus on words that need work.

Repeating this exercise before and after the show will greatly help you learn the words.

Another way to review your new words is by seeing them in different contexts.

For example, you can plug them into an online dictionary like Jisho to see example sentences. There’s also FluentU, the Japanese language program that shows you authentic media clips related to your vocabulary, paired with learning tools to help you fully understand the content.

Use the vocabulary in order to internalize it

If you want to take your learning a step further, then learn by using.

Creating sentences and paragraphs is one of the best ways to internalize words (or any other aspects of a language).

Design homework and extra credit for yourself. For instance, for every vocabulary item on your list, use it in a sentence. Or practice writing sentences that incorporate multiple vocabulary words. Have someone check the sentences for you.

Another way to dive deeper into the studies is to create kanji lists from the vocabulary items. Study kanji lists using flashcards, kanji apps or the technique I described above.

And that’s the whole process! Pretty easy, right?

A Few Mistakes to Avoid When Learning with TV, Movies and Anime

When you do it right and impose a bit of structure, learning from videos and shows can be an excellent way to learn new vocabulary and practice your listening skills. And with a little extra effort, you can create your own homework and practice other skills, such as writing and speaking.

Before you know it, the new vocabulary will worm its way into your daily conversation and your other studies.

But there are some common mistakes that can hinder your efforts.

Not sticking to your program

Discipline is crucial to making progress. Part of the problem with using enjoyable shows to study is that you can get caught up in the show instead of studying.

The fastest way to learn is by sticking to your program. So if you need to motivate yourself to study—say, by rewarding yourself after the show—then do it.

Not separating study from play

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Make sure that you don’t overwork yourself. Not every show should be a “study show.” It’s always important to guard against burnout.

If you find that using your favorite shows to study makes them less enjoyable, then consider studying from less interesting shows so you can keep enjoying the ones you love.

Focusing too much on where you want to be

This mindset actually applies to all areas of studying, but it can come into play much more when studying from difficult shows.

Why? You’re frequently faced with how much you don’t know. That’s one reason it’s important to pick shows at the appropriate level.

If you keep comparing yourself to your end goal (such as understanding a news program), you’ll always be reminded that you aren’t there yet. So pick the right show and focus on immediate goals, such as learning a particular list.

If you avoid these common pitfalls, though, it’s fairly easy to use your favorite shows to build your vocabulary quickly and easily.


A little bit of structure goes a long way, especially when you’re trying to teach yourself Japanese. Keep your eyes on short-term goals and in a few months you’ll be amazed at how many new words you’ve packed away.

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