Chances are, if you’re learning Japanese, you’ve played some Japanese video games.
Playing video games in the original Japanese may even be one of the driving forces behind your quest for fluency.
And that’s perfectly okay.
In fact, it’s amazing.
Don’t let anybody, especially your Japanese teachers, tell you differently.
You can mix love and learning in a way that might make your old sensei blush.
Whether you’re an experienced gamer wondering how to apply your love for Japanese video games to learning the language, or whether you’re just interested in exploring the possibilities of learning Japanese through video games, this post will show you exactly how to get started.
Then, we’ll look at three games in particular that are especially rich with Japanese learning material.
Why Video Games Make Great Japanese Listening and Reading Practice
If you’re like me, you’ve been told your attention span is as long as a grain of koshihikari rice. But in reality, maybe the actual problem is that there aren’t brilliantly-flashing lights illuminating foreign planes of fantastical lands while you stare blankly at those TPS reports.
What if you could transform that tired video game dialogue into juicy language learning? How about speed up your reading by blazing through item descriptions in the middle of a boss battle?
Video games are the perfect tool for taking your Japanese to the next level. There are few other instances where you’ll be as greedily scouring subtitles as a character performs the audio for you. Think of it as a bedtime story for your grownup self, where instead of sleeping you play video games all night and rightfully call it studying.
Invest in Your Japanese Learning: Buy a PlayStation 3 or 4
I’m not here to start a console flame war.
I’m here to finish it (at least for Japanese learners).
It’s no coincidence that two of the three games on the list below are exclusively for the PlayStation 3. Sony is a Japanese company, and Xbox sales are beyond poor in Japan. It follows that Japanese-exclusive content outnumbers Xbox by any metric.
The big question is, really, PS3 or PS4? And that’s mostly up to you. Assuming you don’t already have one, personally, I would pick up the 3 first; you’ll get more content for lower prices, and the games are still very relevant. If you already want a PS4, though, studying Japanese is but another reason to add it to your shopping list.
While finding games with Japanese voices and subtitles can be a bit of a challenge, the internet has always got your back on imports from legitimate dealers. Sure, they can be a bit expensive. But think about how much the last textbook you bought cost, and then add that to the price of the game you want to play anyway. You’ll see you’re coming out way ahead, especially since you’ll actually finish these study materials.
Regardless of the console, you’re going to need to put your system in Japanese. You can do that by going to “Settings,” then “Language” and then choosing “日本語” from the list (more information on PS4 language settings can be found here). It may sound intimidating, but I’m willing to bet you’ve navigated those menus enough to cruise through them regardless of the language.
This will add basic settings vocabulary to your repertoire—limitlessly useful for any other Japanese electronics you’re bound to come across—and will probably convert some of your other games to Japanese, too, to give you some positive inertia to keep that Japanese ball rolling.
Japanese subtitles are also a must for any game you play. They help with overall comprehension while boosting your reading speed. This may sound strange to you now, but Japanese subtitles actually make Japanese dialogue easier to understand than English subtitles do. In short, they’re crucial to your study experience, so make sure they’re available before you make a purchase.
FluentU is another awesome way to learn Japanese with subtitles (and other great features!) while being entertained.
FluentU takes real-world Japanese videos—like music videos, movie trailers, documentaries, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn real Japanese as it’s spoken in real life.
Just take a look at the wide variety of authentic video content available in the program. Here’s a small sample:
You’ll discover tons of new Japanese vocabulary through these great clips.
Don’t worry about your skill level being an issue when it comes to understanding the language. FluentU makes native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts.
Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
You’ll see definitions, in-context usage examples and helpful illustrations. Simply tap “add” to send interesting vocabulary words to your personal vocab list for later review.
FluentU even uses a learning program which adapts to your specific needs, to turn every video into a language learning lesson and get you to actively practice your newly-learned language.
If you can already read hiragana, katakana and some kanji, then using your reading skills are the only way to improve them, and video games will provide that opportunity. Should you find yourself absolutely stuck, then a quick Google search in Japanese will have you up to speed in no time. Or you can probably find the cutscene that went over your head on YouTube, while you’re there.
Once you’ve gotten everything set up, it’s time to jump into your favorite pastime.
Here are three games guaranteed to get you hooked.
3 of the Very Best Video Games for Learning Japanese
(Includes pausable cutscenes.)
“Ni no Kuni” is an action RPG developed by LEVEL-5 and animated by Studio Ghibli. If you haven’t already ordered the Japanese version (the US version doesn’t have Japanese subtitles), then you’re making a mistake. While this game can come off as a bit childish to those unacquainted, rest assured that it’s an excellent adventure for all ages and Japanese levels.
The timeless Ghibli style lends to its current appeal; you won’t have the slightest feeling you’re playing a game that’s four years old. It has the charm and emotional impact of “Castle in the Sky” with the satisfying RPG elements of “Dark Cloud 2,” all mixed with a bit of “Pokemon.” That all combines for 100+ hours of excellent Japanese exposure.
The Good Stuff
Aside from the furigana-infused subtitles included in every cutscene and piece of text, which in itself amounts to no small portion of a novel, I should mention that there’s an actual book in the game. While a lot of it is about monster and weapon attributes, there are also legitimate lore sections worked into the “Magic Master” that develop and enrich the gorgeous world you’ll be exploring. At certain points, there are even no-risk reading comprehension quizzes in the form of a side quest. How’s that for positive reading reinforcement?
I know, it seems like I’m trying to get you to read a book under the guise of playing a video game. I am decidedly not. The pacing of the story dictates how much of the “Magic Master” is unlocked, so you won’t feel overwhelmed. Don’t worry if you start to feel like the furigana is getting in the way at some point—that just means you’re learning.
If you’re lucky, you can snag a copy of the “Magic Master” yourself. After spending as much time with this game as I know you will, it’ll seem like it should most definitely be the first Japanese book to put on your shelf. And it’s pretty damn cool—even for an adult. Speaking of adults, most of us (don’t laugh) will learn the ins-and-outs of speaking to children. I don’t know any Japanese textbook that effectively gives the slightest instruction on this, but “Ni no Kuni” will make you a pro.
Oliver, the main character, speaks to many children throughout the course of this game, and many adults speak to Oliver, amounting to twice the opportunity to pick up on the subtleties of spoken language.
On top of that, all of the cutscenes in the game are re-watchable at any time, contingent upon your casino chip stash, that is. There may or may not be a way to pull a little “Rain Man” maneuver if you don’t want to spend all your time haunting a digital casino… but you didn’t hear it from me.
By the end of this game you’ll have most certainly moved from beginner to intermediate, and some will have the reading experience points to make the jump to advanced. If you want to play Japanese RPGs in the original language, and I know you do, this is definitely the place to start.
Platform: PS4, Xbox One
Version: Any (English version has full Japanese option)
Level: Upper Intermediate-Advanced
Subtitles: English and Japanese
(Includes pausable cutscenes.)
Look, you already know about Final Fantasy 15. Somewhere along its god-forsaken, 10-year development cycle, it crossed your radar before disillusioning your naive outlook on life with constant, indefinite delays. While I am very, very hesitant to say that this game was worth the wait, because 10 years is entirely too long to wait for anything besides a new “Space Jam” movie, it’s without a doubt one of my favorite action RPGs of all time (that’s just, like, my opinion, man—calm down).
The story is well executed and paced, the combat is satisfying and flashy, and the main characters are memorable and likable. If you don’t want to venture back in pixelated time for your video game study, if only to geek out with your gamer peeps in the current moment, then this is one game you’re going to want to pick up—assuming you haven’t already.
The Good Stuff
As a Japanese learner, you may have entertained thoughts of playing FFXV in Japanese. Then you thought, “Nah, it’ll be too hard. I wanna enjoy the story to its fullest, so I’ll just play it in English first and then blah blah blah I’m actually scared of not understanding everything.”
Don’t be scared of this game. Upper-intermediate is definitely the category for this entry in the series—and I’ll tell you why: The designers have incorporated an excellent quest tool that tells you exactly where to go and what to do. Plus, you don’t even have to find the best route yourself—the game will literally drive you to wherever you need to be if you so desire.
Now, the meat of this game is open-world, so you can drive, ride a chocobo, fly or even walk to wherever you so please. But during any of the transportation methods and throughout any of your activities, your team of four bros will entertain you with situationally-appropriate banter and consistently sharp humor.
Noctis, Gladio, Ignis and Prompt (that ending “o” is stupid in English, so I’m changing it) each have distinct personalities evinced through their actions and language, making this the ideal opportunity for you to decipher their idiosyncrasies and infuse your Japanese with the one you like the best.
Want to sound a bit formal but always put together? Ignis is your guy. How about talking like a casual 20-something with an indignant flare? Noctis has got you. Or perhaps light-hearted and quick-witted Prompt is more your style? Which is not even to mention the several other characters who cross your path through different missions and quests.
Mix and match until you sound like you’ve always wanted to in Japanese. All of the dialogue is subtitled, too, from back-and-forth banter deep in an ice cave to breath-taking summon scenes, so you can pause and check out words you don’t know as they’re being read to you.
Now, you may be thinking that this game may not be much fun for girls looking to study, because it’s just a bunch of dudes talking to each other all the time. That’s not exactly the case. Yes, the dialogue leans heavily toward typically-male Japanese, but there are at least three female characters who have plenty of talk time from which you can cull your own style.
And hey, if you want to bend those rules by speaking like Gladio and looking like Iris, I’m completely on your side. Your language, your choice.
The Yakuza series is a long-running beat ’em up steeped in drama centered around the Tokyo underground. Be warned, this game is violent and earns its Mature rating.
For those who have been to Tokyo before, and specifically to the infamous Kabukichō, the open-world of Kamurocho will hit all of your nostalgia buttons. Walk into a convenience store and look at some magazines, eat a quick bowl of gyudon at Matsuya, sing a duet at karaoke and just enjoy running around the city before hitting a group of bad guys in the face with a traffic cone.
Almost as important as the story are the variety of mini games, so you never feel bad for taking your time at the pachinko parlor or schooling some noobs at the ping pong table.
If you’re new to the series like I was, jumping in at the fourth installment may seem like you’d have to spend an uncomfortable amount of time scouring the backstory on Wikipedia—until you find out that you can watch every cutscene from all three previous games right from the main menu. It’s like a video game Netflix, and you can count on being up to speed before you hit the start button.
The Good Stuff
Sometimes “Yakuza 4” can feel more like an awesome yakuza movie than a game, clocking in at about 6 hours of cutscenes, which are, you guessed it, subtitled. It’s worth noting that these are excellently performed, some roles being filled by real Japanese actors. Even if the fighting can feel a little dry after a long play session, the story will keep you coming back for more.
There aren’t any furigana for the Japanese subtitles, and this can be a complex story to grasp the first time around. However, advanced learners will enjoy the flourishes of language presented by hard-talking yakuza members and their more-reserved bosses. Learning some good ol’ Japanese fighting words will round out your keigo diet, and it can’t hurt knowing whether or not someone is obviously using terms that indicate they’re affiliated with the Japanese mafia, should you decide to do some exploring of comparatively unsavory areas of Japan (for which I take no responsibility).
Plus, it’s not all rough Japanese. One of the four main characters is a smooth-talking loan shark and the other characters talk to people who they aren’t trying to intimidate.
What’s also great about this series is the amount of content offered. After you’re done with 4, there are at least three other, newer games that you can dive into immediately (might I recommend the newest “Kiwami”). But when you’re finally ready to pop in “Yakuza 5,” you can be confident in your ability to sound damn scary and serious in Japanese whenever you so choose.
Keep Playing Video Games!
Don’t be shy about putting your own favorite games in Japanese, either. While you’ll pick up more cultural cues and tidbits from an originally Japanese game, there’s also something to be gained from knowing how professional translators approached the characters you’re already familiar with.
The important thing is to keep going! Don’t let that new release your thumbs have been itching to play slow down your progress; play it in Japanese and enjoy some guilt-free gaming.
When Victor wrestles himself away from Final Fantasy XV, he writes a blog focused on the humorous and dabbling in the ridiculous. Check it out here.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.