How many times have you listened to awkward, artificial Japanese dialogues starring robotic office workers, stereotypical gaijin and deep-voiced, authoritarian narrators?
If you’re a typical learner of Japanese, by now you’ve been through a few years of forced listening.
And if you’ve survived this long, you’re probably aching to finally ditch all of that in favor of listening to real, live Japanese with topics that you could actually care about.
The good news is that, if you’re really determined, now is your opportunity to jump headfirst into the vast and wonderful world of Japanese talk radio: The place where Japanese is liberated from the straightjacket of socially-dictated role-playing and shows its true colors as one of the most expressive languages around.
Who Should Learn with Japanese Talk Radio?
Making the transition to actual radio programs is something that everyone should at least try to do at some point in their studies. But to do it effectively, you need to be comfortable enough with Japanese to listen to native speakers. You need to have a solid foundation on which to develop your comprehension skills through listening.
Having mastered the typical classroom-brand listening drills doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to follow what people say on real-life radio; the gap between these two types of Japanese is so wide that they might as well be two different dialects on opposite sides of the country.
Instead, the best benchmark to determine how successful you’ll be as a radio listener is your ability to read current texts—mainly online articles on news and general topics. If you can go over such articles and get a rough idea of what they’re about without looking up anything in the dictionary, it means you’re ready for radio prime time.
Why? Because it proves that you have enough basic vocabulary under your belt to identify the most important words you’ll hear. This basic network of meanings is necessary for successfully inferring the many words you don’t know.
This means that, even if you think you’re not very good at listening, you may be better than you realize—as long as you can read well. The only way to find out is to go ahead and listen for yourself!
How to Maximize Your Japanese Talk Radio Experience
Whatever your language skills and taste in content may be, there are a few general tips that can help you make the most of your listening activities.
- Focus on programs that have frequently updated episodes with new materials to keep you engaged—at least one new episode per week. Don’t bother with discontinued programs; outdated radio is about as attractive as microwaved ice cream. To stay motivated, stick to current content.
- Don’t try to understand every word you hear. Don’t pause or play it back right away. Let it play on and try to get the gist from whatever parts you do understand, no matter how few they are. Doing this regularly will encourage your listening skills to develop more rapidly and naturally.
- Find a couple of programs you like and feel comfortable listening to, and make a habit of listening to them regularly. Hearing the same regular participants over and over again will make picking up new words and phrases easier, as you won’t have to struggle with constantly-changing manners of speech every time you listen.
- If the program is related to news, identify the most important keywords in the episode’s title, look them up on Google News and quickly go over a few written news articles that discuss them. Having some advance knowledge of terms that are relevant to the topic will make a big, positive difference in your ability to understand what you hear.
- Don’t forget to enjoy yourself! If a program bores you, stop listening to it and find something better. With all the options you’ve got here, you’re not likely to run out of alternatives anytime soon, so go ahead and have fun!
- Radio stations manned by native Japanese speakers too much for you right now? Start slower, with audio that’s been recorded with language learners in mind. For example, JapanesePod101 by Innovative Language. This particular audio series is designed to teach you Japanese step by step, starting from any level you’re currently at. There’s tons of audio and video to improve your listening skills, as well as interactive learning features and an eager community of learners to lean on along the way.
Yet another option is FluentU, which is loaded with audio materials.
Where to Find the Best Japanese Talk Radio Programs
There are a great many Japanese talk radio programs, but surprisingly, there aren’t so many places on the web where you can find quality radio channels with regularly updated materials.
As a listener, the last thing you want is to end up with a few episodes of an old, discontinued program—but often, that’s exactly where you’ll be pointed when you try to find good things to listen to.
Luckily, there are three major radio outlets that are freely accessible online, and now I’ll introduce them and a few of the best programs that each of them has to offer. But before that, I’ll give you a few useful tips on how to maximize your listening practice through talk radio.
The Solid Player: NHK
For anyone who’s just starting to listen to real Japanese talk radio programs, NHK’s Radio on Demand (ラジオオンデマンド/らじおおんでまんど) should probably be the first stop.
After all, NHK sets the standard of what “Standard Japanese” actually is, so the kind of spoken language you’ll hear from the corporation’s anchors and reporters will be the most similar to the language you already know from your textbooks and class settings, which ensures the smoothest transition to real-life materials.
Another great advantage of NHK’s ラジオ オン デマンド for learners is that every recording can be played in the three speeds marked in hiragana: normal (ふつう), slow (ゆっくり) or, if you’re in a hurry, fast (はやい). You can alternate between these speeds according to your level, and the slowest one can help you pinpoint words you couldn’t distinguish in the normal speed.
The ラジオ オン デマンド website allows you to listen to the most up-to-date of NHK’s news-oriented broadcasts. The programs aren’t streamed live but uploaded sometime after going on air—so the times indicated below are only for the actual radio broadcasts, and the web versions will appear later. The programs can either be played directly through the website or, if you prefer to listen to them in podcast format, downloaded from the podcasts page.
Now we’ll take a look at the programs they offer.
Bite-size listening: Short news programs
Regular NHK news bulletins are broadcast three times a day and usually have fixed lengths: at 7:00 (20 minutes long), 12:00 (15 minutes) and 15:00 (10 minutes).
At 19:00 is the main news program, “NHK Daily News” (NHKきょうのニュース/NHKきょうのにゅーす), which is around 30 minutes long and has the most diverse content of the four news programs.
A daily tour of Japan: “The Islands Relay News”
After the news at 7:00 p.m., usually starting at 7:30 p.m., there’s a fascinating short program, called “The Islands Relay News” (列島リレーニュース/れっとうりれーにゅーす). The concept is to present one story from each of Japan’s regions, starting from either Okinawa or Hokkaidō and gradually progressing toward the other end of the country.
The stories focus on region-specific news and provide an interesting look into the real Japan that exists outside the overbearing megalopolis of Tokyo. Typical stories focus on local events, traditions and other topics of interest that are unique to the focal region.
Wrapping up the day: “NHK Journal”
Finally, at 22:00, “NHK Journal” (NHK ジャーナル/NHK じゃーなる) brings together regular anchors and rotating commentators to discuss current events at length. Some of the stories elaborate on earlier news items while others are specific to this program.
NHK Journal is a good place to get accustomed to listening to group discussions. The participants speak relatively clearly and slowly and don’t interrupt each other—something that does happen in more casual talk radio and can instantly drop your listening comprehension to sub-zero levels! Here you can listen carefully to each speaker and gradually build the ability to follow multiple speakers at the same time.
The Talkative Friend: TBS
At some point, after you’ve become more comfortable listening to real Japanese radio, you’ll probably want to expand your horizons in terms of topics while challenging yourself a bit more as a learner.
That will be the perfect time to head to the Japanese radio station with the most robust online presence—TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System), which is a major broadcasting organization that operates both radio and television stations.
Listening to this broadcaster’s radio programs is a breeze thanks to the sleek TBS Radio Cloud (TBSラジオクラウド/TBS らじおくらうど), a regularly-updated website that lets you listen to the latest episodes of nearly 40 (!) different shows, many of them broadcast five times a week. Non-registered users can only listen to the most recently uploaded items, but free registration will let you listen to past episodes as well.
Compared to NHK’s somewhat formal content, TBS Radio Cloud is much more casual and laid-back. The difficulty goes up accordingly, so it’s recommended for a relatively proficient listener whose skill level is at least intermediate.
Here’s a quick look at some of the highlights of the Radio Cloud:
Into the deep end: “Session-22”
One of the most well-known programs you can listen to on TBS Radio Cloud is Ogiue Chiki’s “Session-22” (荻上チキ・Session-22 — pronounced in Japanese as written in English: おぎうえちき・せっしょんとぅえんてぃーとぅー).
The show’s focus is on in-depth discussions about anything of interest in the news. Whether it’s politics, culture, global affairs or personal stories, the variety is endless and the quality is top-notch. The hosts, Ogiue Chiki and Nambu Hiromi (南部広美/なんぶひろみ), present each story and then skillfully interview a gallery of guests who each brings a unique point of view to the issue being discussed.
The hosts’ clear pronunciation makes the program relatively straightforward to follow, while having new interviewees to listen to will provide you with continuous challenge and reinforce your ability to handle diverse manners of real-life speech—which is usually very different from the polished version you’ll hear spoken by career hosts.
A wacky clubhouse: “Tamamusubi”
Another popular TBS program is “Tamamusubi” (たまむすび), which is the radio equivalent of that distinctly Japanese TV institution known as variety shows (バラエティー番組/ばらえてぃー ばんぐみ).
By the way, the name たまむすび means “knot,” and as it turns out, it’s also a historical hairstyle where the hair is folded and tied behind the neck.
“Tamamusubi” is the naughty, rambunctious little kid on the Radio Cloud. Each host of the show is called a “personality” (パーソナリティー/ぱーそなりてぃー, a word often used to describe star radio presenters) and the guests are comedians who are also familiar to viewers of variety shows on television, such as Cunning Takeyama (カンニング 竹山/かんにんぐ たけやま).
The stories and corners here are all funny and offbeat, and the show usually sounds more like a merry party that just happened to be recorded and streamed to the whole world without the partiers’ knowledge.
Accordingly, the speech here is blazing fast and full of slang words, so it’s only recommended if your listening comprehension skills are fairly advanced. Whatever your level, there will probably be a lot of words and terms that you can’t pick up here—but exposure to this kind of rapid, unrestrained speech will still benefit your pronunciation and intonation in the long run.
Power to the people: “Arakawa Kyōkei’s Day Catch!”
“荒川強啓デイ・キャッチ！” (あらかわきょうけいでい・きゃっち！) is a news-oriented talk show that’s broadcast in the late afternoon. The concept is aptly described as 聴く夕刊 (きく ゆうかん)—”an audio evening paper.”
The program’s trademark corner is the News Ranking (ニュースランキング/にゅーすらんきんぐ): the most important topics of the day are ranked based on a poll done earlier on the busiest streets of central Tokyo. The ranking often ends up with decidedly unimportant stories in the lead, but to be honest, this is what usually happens in democracy.
Comic challenge: “Wa Wa Wagei”
話話話芸 (pronounced わ・わ・わげい) is a sort of radio performance hall for Japanese-style stand-up routines, usually by rakugo (落語/らくご) comedians or similar performers.
Just be warned—this is only for truly advanced listeners! It can be quite frustrating to hear people laughing when you’re the only one who doesn’t get the joke, but if you like challenges, you should at least give it a try.
Play and replay: “My Game, My Life”
“マイゲーム・マイライフ” (まい げーむ・まい らいふ) is a heaven for gamers—so much so that the program’s logo says “PlayStation presents.” Even if you’re not a geek and games aren’t your thing, this program is worth listening to just so you can be amazed by how much people have to say about this topic.
Life in the Milky Way: “DAIRY LIFE”
“DAIRY LIFE” (this is how they spell it—all caps) has one of the most unusual radio show concepts ever: talking about life from the point of view of dairy farmers. Which also explains the pun in the program’s name—it’s not just an insider joke on the Japanese pronunciation of “daily.”
“DAIRY LIFE” is hosted by 石川實 (いしかわみのる) and, according to the website, it’s produced in collaboration with no less than 3,000 dairy-farming families in the Kantō region. A big part of the program’s mission is to bring the countryside’s perspective to the increasingly urbanized society of current Japan.
The Spiritual Economist: Radio Nikkei
The Nihon Keizai Shimbun (日本経済新聞/にほんけいざいしんぶん), more familiar by its abbreviated name, The Nikkei (日経/にっけい), is the world’s most widely circulated economic newspaper. It’s also a household name thanks to the Nikkei 225 Stock Index, which is calculated by the newspaper and is the established barometer of Japan’s economy.
But relatively few people outside Japan are aware that The Nikkei also has a subsidiary radio service, and its excellent programs are by no means limited to economic topics—although there are of course plenty of those as well, beginning with the daily headline recap bulletin “聴く日経ヘッドライン” (きく にっけい へっどらいん).
With podcasts freely available online, learners of Japanese can enjoy access to some truly excellent listening content on topics that no other broadcaster seems to venture into. Another advantage is that the website usually keeps its listening materials accessible in the archive, so you can listen to programs that were originally broadcast several years back.
Just a technical note first: Listening to the programs is possible either directly on Nikkei’s on-demand listening website, or by downloading podcasts on iTunes through the link provided at the top of the website’s main page.
If you listen directly on the website, note that access to the episodes is done not from the descriptions that you see at the center of the page but through a sidebar with the title “今すぐ聴く！オンデマンド (いますぐきく！おんでまんど/Listen Now! On Demand).
When you’re on a program’s page, find the sidebar on the right and click on the episode you’d like to listen to—they’re arranged by date in descending order, with the most recent broadcast shown first.
Here are a few of the more unique programs on Radio Nikkei:
Guidance from above: Mount Kōya Time
Mount Kōya, the sacred center of the Shingon school (真言宗/しんごんしゅう) of Japanese Buddhism, is a world-famous tourist destination and one of the most revered pilgrimage sites in Japan. Getting there is quite a long trip even by direct train from nearby Osaka—let alone from other parts of Japan or the world.
But thanks to the program “Mount Kōya Time” (高野山の時間/こうやさんのじかん), even if you can’t make the trip over there, the spiritual message of this special place can come all the way to you.
Each broadcast is basically a lecture by an actual Shingon priest, usually the head priest of a local temple somewhere in Japan. Each one is presented as a miniseries that’s related to certain spiritually-important subjects before moving on to a new lecturer and subject.
Zen on air: Listening to Sōtō teachings
If you’re more into Zen—and most foreign Japan enthusiasts probably are—Radio Nikkei also has much to offer from this distinctly Japanese angle of Buddhism. The program 耳で聞く曹洞宗の教え (みみ で きく そうとう しゅう の おしえ) is dedicated to discussions based on the teachings of the Sōtō school (曹洞宗, そうとうしゅう), which is the largest of the three main branches of Zen.
Each broadcast discusses a different topic, arranged in interrelated miniseries similarly to the Kōya program introduced above. Recent fascinating examples include “The significance of cooking as a place for self-development,” “The power of Zen meditation to bring release to body and mind” and “The state of mind of having filial obedience to Master Dōgen” (the founder of the Sōtō school).
Strolling back in time: “Gyokushūsai’s Kansai Storytelling Walk”
If you love Japanese history and tradition, this program will make you one happy listener! “玉秀斎の関西講談ウォーク” (ぎょくしゅうさいのかんさいこうだんうぉーく) tells the intriguing stories behind historical figures and locations around Kansai—the cradle and heart of Japanese civilization. This relatively new program first went on air in April 2016, and has so far covered (literally) quite a lot of ground.
The traditional storyteller hosting the show, Tamada Gyokushūsai (玉田玉秀斎/たまだぎょくしゅうさい), is himself intimately connected to the local history of Kansai. A native of Osaka, he joined a venerable traditional storytelling school and in 2016 became the fourth-generation performer to be named Tamada Gyokushūsai. This name had previously been held by three other persons in the same professional lineage and was last used about a hundred years ago.
Being a historical figure himself, no one is more suitable than Gyokushūsai to take you on a guided tour back into the past!
Now you’ve got quite a diverse collection of Japanese talk radio broadcasters and programs to listen to.
Get started listening right now, and you’ll grow more accustomed to hearing and understanding Japanese natives by the day.
Dan Bornstein is the creator, writer and translator of Reajer, a constantly expanding series of bilingual Japanese readers that develop advanced reading skills using real literature.
And One More Thing...
If you love learning Japanese with authentic materials, then I should also tell you more about FluentU.
FluentU naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You'll learn real Japanese as it's spoken in real life.
FluentU has a broad range of contemporary videos as you'll see below:
FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts. Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
All definitions have multiple examples, and they're written for Japanese learners like you. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples.
The best part? FluentU keeps track of your vocabulary, and gives you extra practice with difficult words. It'll even remind you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You'll have a 100% personalized experience.
The FluentU app is now available for iOS and Android, and it's also available as a website that you can access on your computer or tablet.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.