You can’t stop until you…
“Catch ‘Em All.”
That’s right: Pokémon.
There are so many of them! They’re waiting for you near waterfalls, taunting you from the tall grass, leering at you in dark caves.
If you’ve played any of the Pokémon games, you may have wondered: “Can I turn my love of video games into a Japanese study tool?”
Rejoice, dear trainers! We can definitely make that happen.
This guide will have you leveling up your Japanese reading and character recognition while snagging as many Pokémon as you see appropriate—which, I’m guessing, is all of ‘em.
Yes, even you, Magikarp. Just get in the ball already.
Why Learn Japanese with Pokémon?
Pokémon can be a great learning incentive for those looking to jump out of the textbooks and into more interactive learning.
What makes this series especially appealing is that the content is geared toward children. Most of the words and phrases used in the Japanese version will contain kanji and compounds that kids in middle school are expected to know.
There’s also the option to play entirely in hiragana and katakana!
However, keep in mind that this might actually make things more difficult: It’s harder to tell words apart without having a solid grasp of the surrounding context.
Plus, you’ve been studying all of those kanji. Now’s the time to use them!
Tons of content
Pokémon is a series that, even after 22 years, shows no signs of slowing. There are literally thousands of hours of content for you to consume across several generations and iterations of the games released.
This is one rabbit hole that’ll take you a long, long time to get to the bottom of.
And, since you’re studying Japanese, that’s a good thing. Immersing in that many hours of reading practice will prepare you to tackle more complex games and even books.
That’s right: You can bring Pikachu along on your path to literacy.
The original Pokémon game debuted for the Game Boy in 1996.
I’ll let that sink in.
Okay, bittersweet nostalgic moment over.
Since then, it’s been an inherently mobile series.
The main iterations of the game are meant to be taken with you, making it the perfect study companion. Even if you lug around the original Game Boy and four sets of batteries, you won’t be too weighed down.
Of course, most titles are available on the much smaller 3DS, so even if you fly Basic Economy, you should be able to squeeze it into your carry-on.
And you probably already know about “Pokémon GO,” the free-to-play smartphone app. Free and portable language learning! It just doesn’t get any better.
Which Pokémon Games Are the Best for Studying Japanese?
First, if you have a 3DS, then “Pokémon X” and “Y” are excellent places to start.
They’re the oldest titles that have an option to change the entire game into Japanese built into the US versions. This means that you don’t have to scour Amazon for a Japanese console and then import the Japanese versions of the games. Just change the language option and play!
The one caveat is that you need a separate save file if you decide to play the game in English after you start, but you should be able to use context clues (and online guides) to get you through in the unlikely event that you get stuck.
Already played “X”? Play “Y.” Already played both? The option to change the language to Japanese is present in every game since those two. So, you can play “Sun,” “Moon,” “Ultra Sun”… you get the idea.
Another great option for practicing your Japanese is “Pokémon GO.”
To play this game in Japanese, just set your smartphone’s language to Japanese and open the app. That’s it!
This is the perfect chance to study outside while getting in some exercise. There’s not as much text to interact with or reading opportunities compared to the previously-listed games, but it’s free. And it’s portable. So use it!
And if you own a Nintendo Switch, there are even more options for studying coming your way! The recently announced “Let’s Go Eevee” and “Let’s Go Pikachu” will probably feature a Japanese option, too. (This is also another reason to play “Pokémon GO,” as Pokémon will be transferable between the two games via Bluetooth.)
Learn Japanese with Pokémon: It’s Super Effective!
If this is your first Japanese game, you might be intimidated once you get past the title screen.
At first, there’ll be excitement. You’re finally doing it! You said you’d play this game in Japanese, and now you’re committed! You’re going to keep at it, explore and win at Japanese!
But wait, you’ve never seen that character before. Or that one. That’s another new compound word. Is that a name or a city or an attack?
It’s okay to feel lost. It’s okay to feel defeated.
This is your own adventure, and you have to approach it that way. If you quit things just because they’re challenging, then you sure wouldn’t be playing video games in your free time. So take that mentality and apply it to this scenario.
The worst you’ll ever be at something is when you do it the first time. You’re getting better. You’re increasing your exposure hours. You’re doing it right.
Let’s go over some quick tips for making the most of the experience and getting you up to Japanese-gaming speed.
Keep Using Other Methods
Okay, so I know you’re excited about learning Japanese with Pokémon, but I have to break it to you: You can’t learn just from playing.
If you’re serious about learning the language, you’ll want to keep using other methods of learning. Don’t put away your Japanese textbooks or rage-quit your online courses. Pokémon is just one piece of the fluency puzzle, a side-quest, if you will.
One of the best ways to reach that native-level Japanese is through immersion. And no one does immersion-at-home better than FluentU!
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.
Use Context and Break Down Words
While the story may be simplistic, the words and phrases used are usually best suited for those who know basic kanji and are at least intermediate learners of Japanese.
What’s great about Pokémon, though, is that the battle system will allow you to progress as long as you understand what attacks are being used and what items you have.
Reading comprehension for battling Pokémon is mainly comprised of vocabulary, which will be easily added to your repertoire through repetition. Use an attack. Figure out what is. Remember what it is. Use it again. Rinse and repeat!
Advanced learners can enjoy the idiosyncratic flourishes of the main characters and even piece together the meaning behind the Pokémon names.
ヒトカゲ (ひとかげ) — Hitokage breaks down into ひ or 火 (ひ) — fire, and トカゲ (とかげ) — lizard.
That explanation makes a lot more sense when I tell you this is Charmander’s Japanese name!
Wordplay abounds in Pokémon, and you’ll enjoy finding all the puns and twists of language in the names of the Pokémon you know and love. (Or hate. I’m sure some of them get on your nerves. Here’s looking at you, Magikarp.)
Keep a Record of Your Journey
We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: When you come across a word or phrase you don’t know, write it down. On paper. The entire sentence it was in, too.
It’ll help your writing and solidify the words more effectively in your memory.
I recommend keeping smartphone notes and then compiling them on paper at the end of the day; that way you get to test your memory as well as go over each word twice.
After you do that, those smartphone notes will transfer nicely to your SRS program of choice to make sure you retain the words. It’s a three-step system that hits all the major reading/writing areas, and you’ll be shocked by how much and how quickly you improve.
If you’re a more advanced learner, you can take this a step further: Write down a journal about your adventures! Summarizing the story, your favorite fighters or most crushing defeats will give you a chance to practice your tenses, grammar and vocabulary use.
You can even take the Nuzlocke Challenge and add more depth to your descriptions! Just try describing in Japanese the emotional impact of having to release your favorite little friend after a heartbreaking defeat.
Then, take your Japanese writing online: start a blog, post on a forum or send out a Tweet with a screenshot. You might find a new language and gaming buddy this way! But more on this later.
You don’t have to do this alone.
Of course, you should search in Japanese for optimal learning potential!
The wikis are a great way to access information that you may already be familiar with in English, but are unsure of the Japanese for the same concept.
Plus, you’ll diversify your gaming vocabulary, which means you can begin to consume Japanese media about all the games you love, and you can geek-out with a Japanese person when they catch you playing “Pokémon GO” in the park.
Grab a Friend, Form a Party
Now that you’ve encountered a wild Pokémon Enthusiast, who, best-case scenario, is Japanese, you’ve got to make every effort to
capture “befriend” them.
In all seriousness, these games are designed to played socially. And with the power of the internet, it’s now easier than ever to find fellow language learners, or native speakers, even if you know no one local.
In fact, “Pokémon GO” recently announced the new friend system, which will make it easier to connect remotely with others.
There’s nothing like a little friendly competition to keep you accountable. If you start playing with a study-buddy, then you can compare notes while battling Pokémon.
You won’t be drudging through an area you don’t like simply to say you did it. You’ll be gunning for certain Pokémon types to trounce your rival and aching to level up for the visceral and satisfying look of defeat on their widdle fwaces. Don’t forget that this is a bloodsport… for children… but a bloodsport nonetheless!
You will, of course, be speaking Japanese, giving you the opportunity to turn all that reading practice into speaking practice. And talk some trash.
If that’s not the ideal study environment, then I don’t know what is.
This might seem like it goes without saying, but, especially if you’re new to Japanese gaming, there might come a point where playing Pokémon feels like a slog—especially if Magikarp is in your party.
Remember, your goal isn’t just to study when you’re playing these games. Your goal is enjoyment PLUS learning. You can have both, and you’ll learn more if you’re having fun. So don’t sweat the small stuff.
Tired of looking up kanji? Skip it. Set a quota for yourself, daily or session wise—like learning 12 new words/characters, for instance—and then go about enjoying the content you can understand. Those words you haven’t yet added to your SRS rotation will come up again. Trust me.
And remember: Don’t burn yourself out. Make sure to take some time and simply enjoy the game without worrying about understanding everything.
This is the perfect environment to fail. The game is designed for you to try again. You’re only getting better. Your Japanese will, eventually, evolve.
So when you feel like you’re taking every kanji to the face, think of Magikarp—even it evolves into Gyarados.
When Victor isn’t using his special attack, Throw Shade, on Magikarp, he keeps a comedy blog full of super villains and misguided musings. Check him 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.