What do great Japanese learners have in common?
Discipline, dedication, and quite often…
…also a love of Japanese dramas!
After all, what better way is there to learn Japanese while actually enjoying it?
Why Learn Japanese with a Drama?
Learning with Japanese dramas works because:
- Japanese dramas are just fun and entertaining. You can reserve them for times when you’re just too exhausted to do anything more intense (eg. like talking to your language partner or doing flashcards).
- Dramas also tend to use natural conversational Japanese.
- Dramas aren’t out of reach for anyone—it’s possible to hear the Japanese you do know and infer the rest just by paying attention!
- Dramas are a wonderful way to get culturally fluent. Talking about a popular Japanese drama is a great way to connect with Japanese friends. Just think about all the English conversations you wouldn’t be able to participate in if you didn’t know any celebrities.
Tips on Learning Japanese with Dramas
To learn Japanese as effectively as possible, it isn’t enough to just watch the dramas and expect to soak up the vocabulary through osmosis. You should watch actively.
If you hear an unfamiliar word, you should write it down and look it up in a good dictionary. And ideally, you would review them on a regular basis and use them with your Japanese friends.
OK, so you might be thinking that after you do all that work, it’s not fun anymore.
If you’d like to learn more efficiently and still have fun, you might want to check out FluentU, a site for learning Japanese through real-world videos.
FluentU helps you learn Japanese through movie trailers, commercials, news, and inspiring talks. It has interactive transcripts and a video player designed for learning Japanese. This is all supported by a vocabulary review system which takes full advantage of the video library.
Learn Japanese with a Drama: 10 Great Dramas to Get Started
How to Choose Which Japanese Dramas to Watch
My selection of 10 Japanese dramas to watch has been dictated by my own personal preferences, and it’s also on personal preference that I recommend you discover your own favorite dramas to watch.
By personal preference I mean either someone famous in Japan who you know or you like, or just to think of what kind of story you like.
An unusual aspect of Japanese fame is that an actor isn’t just an actor, a model isn’t just a model and a singer isn’t just a singer, so if there’s a model that you like then there’s a good chance that he or she may also be in a drama, or if there’s a singer then he or she may also be a model as well as in a drama.
For example, one drama I’ll introduce has 上戸彩 as the main star, I first saw her in the movie “あずみ” (Azumi) and later I found out she was a prolific singer and model. I then started following her TV career and discovered many great dramas in which she had acted.
My choices below also reflect the kind of stories I like, so below you’ll find family, romance, a bit of Sci-Fi, tragedy, betrayal, mystery and even one drama focused on the world of オタク (someone with obsessive interests, often equated as geek). I would also recommend that you base your choices on the kinds of stories that you like.
4 Great Family/Romance Japanese Dramas to Learn Japanese
This drama is called “Beautiful Rain” in English, and just seeing the title regularly is enough to help your katakana.
It stars veteran movie and TV star 豊川悦司 as a widower father bringing up his young daughter, child superstar 芦田愛菜.
After a small injury at work, 悦司’s doctor makes the unwelcome discovery that he has Alzheimer’s disease. Each episode focuses on how this very happy father-daughter duo deals with this situation and raises questions about how Alzheimer’s disease is viewed in Japan, the fears they face and the hard decisions that have to be made.
Around them they have a very supportive unofficial family of co-workers and friends who also have to learn with how to deal with this situation. Just as the title of this drama is “Beautiful Rain,” the story itself is very beautiful and it’s a real tear jerker, however I would also recommend this drama as so much of the dialogue is either by a child or by an adult speaking in a simple way to a child. As such, even without subtitles it’s mostly easy to follow apart from some technical points about Alzheimer’s disease.
“Will You Marry Me Again” is a very interesting romantic drama. 和久井映見 plays a happily married wife who faints due to a subarachnoid haemorrhage. Upon hearing this, her husband—played by 竹野内豊, an extremely popular model and TV star—rushes to the hospital and is there when she wakes up.
Unfortunately, she has lost several years of her memories including her whole life together with her husband and has no idea who he is. In the belief that being home would help her regain her memory, and with everyone assuming that this is only a temporary occurrence, she lives with her husband despite being obviously uncomfortable.
This quickly becomes unbearable for her as she doesn’t view it as her house, her things and can only see her husband as a stranger. So she moves back in with her family. The plot thickens as it turns out her younger brother disapproved of her husband in the first place and her ex-boyfriend makes an appearance, while her husband appears to have a big admirer of his own at his workplace.
This is a highly addictive drama as we have to question if they were meant to be together, about what love truly is and of course what will the end result be!
“Absolute Boyfriend” looks at the dynamics of what a relationship is.
Model and popular TV star 相武紗季 plays a single girl who keeps failing to catch the man she likes and gets unwittingly picked by a scientist to be part of a trial using the first human-like robots.
She names her robot Night—played by 速水もこみち who is also a model and even has his own cooking show—while at the same time romance begins to blossom between herself and her boss. Although she initially rejects Night and his attempts at romance, gradually her walls are broken down by his unflinching loyalty to her and his devotion to her happiness.
Meanwhile, her boss represents the human side of relationships in contrast to her relationship with her robot. Unfortunately it’s very easy for the viewer to identify with Night and we can only feel that this story is going to end with heartbreak for someone. As Night is a robot his Japanese is quite easy to follow, and the dialogue itself is quite simple.
“Housekeeper Mita” has to be included in any list of Japanese dramas to watch as it gained some of the biggest audiences ever in Japan.
It was so popular that it reached the point that every single Japanese person had either seen it or was planning to see it; it is really recommendable to watch just for being a conversation starter! Mention that you have seen this TV show (家政婦のミタを見ました。そのドラマが大好きでした！) and you will quickly be in a deep conversation with your Japanese friend about it.
The plot is about a family, consisting of a father and four children, dealing with the recent death of their mother and who hire a housekeeper. Housekeeper Mita is no ordinary person and her refusal to say anything about herself, and to do absolutely anything she is told to do, represents a real mystery to the whole family. However, their attempts to discover her secrets only end up with their own family secrets coming to the surface.
The story includes some more lighter moments, and you will also spot 相武紗季 in a supporting role as a clumsy aunt, but overall this is a very intense drama which had the whole of Japan holding its breath when it was originally screened. Good aspects of the Japanese language in this drama include the formal speech that Mita always uses and the relatively easy and casual language used by the children.
3 Workplace Based Japanese Dramas to Learn More Formal Japanese
This drama, “Rich Man, Poor Woman,” and the following two dramas are relatively more difficult to follow due to the more complex language used, as such you might want to watch with subtitles.
“Rich Man, Poor Woman” follows the story of a rich and successful man played by 小栗旬, who you may have spotted in a small role in “あずみ” alongside 上戸彩 and in a more expanded role in its sequel, and a poor girl who manages to get a job in his company, played by extremely popular actress 石原 さとみ.
This story includes a lot of workplace speaking, but is complemented by a great plot of developing relationships, personal conflict, betrayal and ambition. It addresses the phenomenon of people who have gained fame and fortunes through the development of Apps, etc, as well as questions certain corporate practices.
“Attention Please” is focused on a rock chick, 上戸彩, who ends up applying to be an air stewardess because the boy she likes doesn’t view her as a real girl, but who shows an interest in air stewardesses.
Somehow she passes her interview and begins training to become a real air stewardess. The story is quite entertaining, and informative about the training that a Japanese air stewardess goes through, but also it is a really great resource for improving your formal Japanese.
The style of Japanese speaking that they all have to master is very common in Japan if you go to a shop, or office, and it is really essential to gain at least a working understanding of this kind of language.
SMAP is a massive pop sensation that has had a dominant position in Japanese entertainment for around 20 years, all the members of SMAP frequently appear in dramas and TV variety shows, and “MONSTERS” sees SMAP member 香取慎吾 as a very unusual detective.
Although he is always smiling and very polite, he is unpopular as he does what he wants when he wants and purposely intrudes into places where he shouldn’t. His superiors are suspicious as to why he is able to solve so many mysterious and thus place a rookie detective to work with him and try to discover any secrets that 香取慎吾 may have.
It is a very good police drama with each episode featuring a new crime to be solved, as the language can be quite formal with a lot of crime vocabulary it is best to be watched with subtitles first of all, and then to watch again without subtitles.
Going Back to School: 2 School Japanese Dramas to Learn Japanese
“You Taught Me All of the Important Things” explores the relationships between teachers and students, and is very good for improving your casual Japanese language skills.
三浦春馬 plays a teacher who wakes up with a hangover to discover an unknown girl in his bed, she keeps most of her face covered and as he has to rush to work he gives her his key in order to lock up when she leaves. He apologizes and leaves; at work we find out that he is a teacher to a bunch of teenagers. At the end of the class one of the students remains behind, calling out 先生 (teacher) he looks at her to discover she is holding up his key.
三浦春馬 is engaged to another teacher who works at the same school, but things quickly escalate as he has to deal with his guilt about what happened, fend off the attentions of a girl who is also in his class, while the student simultaneously works to destroy his relationship with his fiancée. However, all is not as it seems as something quite complex is driving both of these characters, and ultimately we have to wonder what actually happened on that first night.
This school-based drama starts with a very unusual premise: a new student is going to join the class and she is 35 years old.
Of course, all of the students are very suspicious as to why this woman has joined their class, and we also quickly understand the complex dynamics of the class with popular and unpopular kids, others who are bullied and one who constantly sits in silence in the corner.
In each episode the 35-year-old unravels a different student’s problem. However, this just makes everyone more and more suspicious about her intentions. The audience as well has to wonder what is driving her, and it turns out that there are secrets behind her—tragic secrets.
1 Final and Very Famous Japanese Drama to Watch
This particular drama is in the same league as “Housekeeper Mita.” It came from an extremely popular book which was pulled off from the apparent true story of an おたく which was posted on a public forum. It spawned this drama and also a movie version.
It follows the trials and tribulations of an オタク who helps a girl being harassed by a drunk on the train and who starts dating her. It is a romantic story which also attempts to rehabilitate オタク people as being just normal people, who are also incredibly supportive of each other, although it must be noted that the Train Man’s efforts to be a suitable boyfriend do lead him to being less of an オタク.
I think one of the best things about this drama, besides its really good plot, is that you can also go online and read the actual transcripts from the original forum where the real Train Man posted.
Conclusion: Learning Japanese by Watching Japanese Dramas
The above are my recommendations, and include particular dramas which were very successful in Japan, but as I said before the best kind of drama to watch is one which attracts you. This can either be through the people who were cast or through the kind of storyline that you like.
If your Japanese level is intermediate or higher I would recommend watching without subtitles, but if you are a beginner you can still watch with subtitles and enjoy these great TV dramas.
After watching with subtitles it is a good idea to watch again without subtitles, soon enough you will find that your Japanese comprehension has improved!
And One More Thing…
If you love learning Japanese with dramas, then I should also tell you about the FluentU app.
Like the site I mentioned earlier, 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 real 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 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 it suggests content and examples based on your vocabulary. You’ll have a 100% personalized experience.
The FluentU app is now available for iPhone, and it’s also available as a website that you can use with your computer or tablet. If you’re an Android user, fear not, for our Android app is 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.