Learning Japanese through Anime... Is it really possible?
If you do a search for "How to learn Japanese from Anime" online, you'll find a lot of articles and videos. In some of them, people are arguing about whether or not it's even possible. In others, somebody might be trying to sell you some obsolete, overpriced course.
In this article, though, we're going to look at a free, practical, step-by-step guide to learning Japanese from anime.
Practical application of language-learning principles.
Yes, it is possible. But let's not be too quick to confuse "possible" with "easy." Rather than try to convince you of whether or not you are actually capable of learning Japanese through anime, I'll just lay out the detailed process of doing so, and you can decide for yourself whether you're down for some anime study goodness or not.
Learning through Anime: A Step-by-Step Process
In this "learning Japanese through anime" guide, we're going to look at a detailed process for putting all that crazy Japanese deep into your brain. Specifically, we'll go over:
- Learning every word of every episode (including how to do so).
- Systematically toggling subtitles.
- Listening to your chosen anime.
- Drilling each anime episode into your brain.
1. Learn every single word of every single episode.
This one's kind of a bummer, because it requires a lot of work, but if you want to understand [your favorite anime], then you need to understand every word in that anime.
Maybe that sounds redundant, but I think that it's something that I had a hard time accepting when I was still a beginner student of Japanese. I was more concerned about enjoying anime than I was about studying anime. As such, I had this lofty dream of magically understanding all of these great shows just by toggling subtitles and "immersing" myself in Japanese.
Well, that didn't work so well.
Watching anime (in the traditional sense) does not teach you Japanese. This has nothing to do with subtitle settings or amount of time watched or "focus" or any of that stuff I used to worry about when I sucked at Japanese.
For example, here are some English words:
- Sui Generis
Now tell me what each of those words means.
Difficult? That's strange, because I'm pretty sure we're reading this article with "English subtitles: On."
But none of us learn that way. We're not geniuses. Or, at least, I'm certainly not a genius.
The point is, you can't expect yourself to understand Japanese just because you hear or see Japanese words. Foreigners who spend decades in Japan without attaining fluency are a testament to this (although this is not evidence of Japanese being difficult or unattainable).
If you looked up those difficult English words above, you would see definitions and example sentences. Doing that alone, you might be able to remember those words. If you also reviewed those words, I guarantee that you could remember them. Well, we want to do the same thing.
Luckily, there are programs available for splitting up the dialogue, audio, screenshots, and video clips of anime and putting them into flashcards so that we can study them... and thereby learn them.
I'll explain how to use this technology later in the article, but for now the point I want to make is this: To "learn Japanese from anime," we need to understand every single word of every single sentence of every single episode of [said anime].
Be able to read it it.
There are a few ways to check our understanding of the written Japanese in an anime. My favorite way is auto-generating Anki flashcards from them, which I talk about later in this post. The old-school option would be to read the manga. And I suppose that a middle ground would be to read the subtitle files (I'll show you where to download them later in this post).
If you try reading it and it's too difficult, then your Japanese is not good enough for the particular anime that you're trying to learn. This is a bummer, but you'll probably have to level down to an easier anime until you get a bit better at Japanese.
2. Systematically toggle subtitles.
Once you have taken your time getting through every single sentence of an episode, then you can move on to watching with/without subtitles.
Personally, I only ever watch anime with Japanese subtitles or with no subtitles at all. It's too difficult for me to stay focused on the words being spoken when they have English subtitles.
3. Listen to your chosen anime.
Pick a couple of your favorite episodes, then rip the audio off of anime video files.
Then you can put that anime onto your mobile device and listen to it 18,000 times per week.
Play it while you go for walks. Play it while you drive to work or school. Play it while you're in bed trying to fall asleep. Let that Japanese goodness soak deep into your brain.
Speaking of which...
4. Drill each anime episode into your brain.
I almost called this section "Shadowing," because that's essentially what I'm talking about here."
Shadowing" refers to mimicking the sounds of native speakers in order to memorize vocabulary, improve pronunciation, and become an all-around more incredible person.
This is as easy as picking out a few bits of your chosen anime episode's audio, then listening to it over and over and over again, trying to copy the voice's tone, pace, and intonation, much like we do with Shadow Loops at NativShark.
Just because you can understand something in Japanese does not mean that you're physically or mentally able to say it yourself. Shadowing is one way to (at least partially) bridge this divide.
Anime Study Tools
This section will explain how we can make Anki flashcards that pull content from our favorite anime. For those that don't know, Anki is a spaced repetition system (SRS). In other words, they're smart flashcards. You can download Anki for free.
What if I told you that you could automatically make Anki flashcards including audio, screenshots, video clips, Japanese subtitles, and English subtitles of your favorite anime shows?
Because, yeah, you can!
If you go to this page, you can read all about a truly incredible program called subs2srs. I don’t know who exactly developed this program, but it is awesome.
subs2srs allows you to create import files for Anki or other Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS) based on your favorite foreign language movies and TV shows to aid in the language learning process. This utility will parse through subtitle files, extract the dialog and timing information and then use that information to generate audio clips, snapshots and video clips for each line of dialog.- Description taken from the subs2srs documentation page
As far as I’m concerned, this program entirely destroys the “you can’t learn Japanese from anime” argument. You can learn Japanese from anime, because with this program you can systematically study every single sentence that shows up in an anime.
Here’s an example of a flashcard that I created using this program, taken from the popular anime Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood:
Enough talking, though. Let’s walk through an example of how to do this. I’ll give step-by-step directions. Then, at the end of this section, I’ll include some links to pre-made anime decks online.
Here I'll walk you through the creation of an anime Anki deck using subs2srs. This guide might seem long and intimidating, but once you get used to the process, it shouldn't take you more than 5-10 minutes to do the whole thing.
You can do this! Japanese mastery through anime awaits you!
First, go to this page to download the subs2srs program:
By clicking the download link shown above, you can download a .zip file containing the program:
Then you can extract all of the files of that .zip file to a location on your system that you choose.
You’ll also want to download one or more anime that do NOT have subtitles hardcoded into them. Here’s my extracted subs2srs program next to a folder that contains Season 1 of the popular anime 進撃の巨人 / Shingeki no Kyojin / “Attack on Titan:”
First, I’ll open up the subs2srs folder:
I double-click on the subs2srs application in order to open the program, which looks like this:
That might look like an intimidating array of options, but it’s actually pretty easy to create your first flashcard deck. Let’s just start at the top and work our way down. The first thing I need is the subtitle file in my target language (Japanese):
Only, I don’t have the subtitle file! My life is ruined!
No, not really. Because we can just go find the file online. There are probably a number of sites for finding these, but so far the best one that I’ve found is kitsunekko.net. Calling this site simple would be a bit of an understatement. Here’s the homepage:
Clicking on the “Japanese subtitles” link will take us to an alphabetical listing of subtitles available in Japanese:
We’re looking for Shingeki no Kyojin / Attack on Titan. Scrolling down, I find it listed under “Shingeki no Kyojin:”
Clicking it will take me to a list of available subtitles:
Luckily, they seem to have them for every episode. I could download each one individually. Instead, though, I’m going to use the FlashGot Add-On that I have installed on my Firefox browser to download them all at once:
Just before I click the FlashGot Lightning Bolt shown above, I create an empty folder to put my subtitles in:
Then I go ahead and click the lightning bolt, which will bring up a download dialog:
It would seem that Flashgot is a genius, as it has automatically selected all of the subtitle files. I click OK, and then they are all downloaded to the Destination folder (that I just created). A blue arrow pops up at the top of my browser every time Flashgot finishes downloading a file (about once every second or two):
Once all of these are downloaded, I can go back to my subs2srs program and choose the Japanese subtitle file:
Let’s start with Episode 01:
Clicking “Open,” will set the directory for my subtitle file:
Now the next item is the directory where the generated files will be placed. In other words, I need to specify where this new deck should be sent to once it’s generated. Let’s create a new folder called Anime Anki Decks:
I’ll go ahead and set that as the location for my generated file:
Next on the list is the corresponding subtitle file in my native language (English). This is technically optional, but I’m guessing that most people are going to want it. Let’s check on kitsunekko.net to see if they have it. This time I’ll go to English Subtitles:
They do have it! Score:
This time they’re zipped files, though, so I don’t need to use Flashgot:
I have no idea which one I should choose, so I just guess and choose the third one. I download the .zip file, then extract all of the contents to a new folder called “English Subtitles:”
I go back to subs2srs so that I can direct it to my English subtitle file:
Since we’re starting with Episode 1, I select the subtitle file for Episode 1:
The only thing left to do now is to indicate to subs2srs where the corresponding video file is:
I can’t really give you much advice on how or where to get your Japanese video files. Ideally, I suppose you would be buying original DVDs of the anime series you are planning to watch and ripping them onto your computer. Whatever you do, please obtain the files legally.
Once you get some anime video files that do not have hard subtitles, you can point subs2srs to them. For this example, I’ll be using Episode 01 of Shingeki no Kyojin:
So now I have all of my file options set:
Next, I want to check my Subtitle Options:
I’m not actually changing these at all, but you might need to if the times in your subtitles don’t match the times in your video.
Next we’ll need to set our Audio options. I’m not changing these at all, either:
Next we have the options for snapshots:
The default is 240px by 160px, but personally I’d like my pics to be a little bit bigger, so I’m going to change this. First I click that little arrow to bring up the snapshots dimension chooser:
This will allow me to make sure that I keep the correct proportions for width and height of snapshots:
I went with 30%, which for this clip is 576px by 324px:
There’s also an option to generate video clips, but I’m just going to skip this. Personally, don’t like including video clips, because the huge amount of data is prone to bogging down my Anki program when syncing:
The last thing that I need to do is to name my deck. I’m calling it Shingeki no Kyojin:
Then I click the “Preview…” link. This will give me a preview of all of the cards to be generated:
In total, it looks like Episode 01 is going to have 243 flashcards!
The first thing you should do now is scroll through some different cards, clicking the “Preview Audio” button in the bottom left corner. If the audio doesn’t match one or both of your subtitles, then you will probably need to adjust the setting of your subtitles. For more info on how to do this, you can check out the subs2srs documentation page.
Once I confirm that my audio and subtitles are matching up, I can remove any clips that I don’t want to appear in my deck. For example, the first scene of the show has some military jargon that you may or may not be interested in, spoken at breakneck speeds:
Conversely, you may wish to remove clips that you think are too easy or pointless. For example, this one is just someone’s name:
To remove it, I select it, then click “Deactivate:”
It’s probably best to go through all of them if you have time, only activating cards that you think will be useful for your studies. Or you can be totally lazy and just click “Go!” at the bottom of the screen like I usually do. I figure I can just delete cards I don’t want while studying, anyways:
After clicking “Go!” I can watch and wait while subs2srs works its magic:
When the program finishes, this is the message you will see:
It’s important to make a note of the format of the Anki import file, which we will now be importing!
If I open up Anki, I can see my 3 decks that I created in Phases #2-3 of the Hacking Japanese Supercourse, the Japanese-learning program that eventually evolved into NativShark:
Now I’m going to get really crazy and create a fourth deck for anime cards. Don’t click “Create Deck,” though. Instead, we want to click “Import File.” In the original folder that we created when we extracted the subs2srs program, there is a folder called Anki Deck Templates. This is where we’re going to find our new deck template:
Since I’m using Anki2 (the current version of Anki), I’m going to open the template context for Anki2 shown above. This will add a fourth deck to my Anki program:
I’m going to change the name to “04 Anime.” I write “04,” because Anki always shows decks in alphabetical order, and I want this one to have the lowest priority:
And now I have four decks in my Anki program.
Okay, now I’m finally ready to import my anime cards! On Anki’s main page, I click “Import File” again, and this time I go find the Shingeki no Kyojin deck that I created in the Anime Anki Decks folder using subs2srs:
This will bring up the Import dialog. First, make sure that the template is set to “subs2srs:”
Next, we need to choose a deck. I’m actually going to create a new deck for Shingeki no Kyojin, so I click the box next to “Deck” (on the screenshot above, it says “Default”):
Clicking “Default” brings up the “Choose Deck” dialog, and then clicking “Add” brings up the option to write my new deck name. After entering it, I click “OK.”
Before I Import the file, I need to make sure that the Field Mapping matches the format of the Anki import file that I created. If you recall, it’s:
Once I edit the “Field Mapping” options a bit, I get everything to match (note also that the box is checked for “Allow HTML in fields”):
(#5 and #6 in my generated file were called “Subs1” and “Subs2,” but in my field mapping options, they are called “Expression” and “Meaning.” This is because “Subs1 = Japanese subtitle = Expression” and “Subs2 = English subtitle = Meaning.”)It looks like everything is good to go, so let’s click “Import!” When I do so, Anki very quickly imports all of my cards:
We’re not quite done yet, though. If I go and look at one of my cards, it still has no audio and no snapshot:
This is because we still need to add the media for this deck to our Anki media collection.
My Anki media collection (by default) is located under Documents → Anki → User Profile (=Newbie) → collection.media. And my media collection for this Anki deck is located in Anime Anki Decks → Shingeki_no_Kyojin.media.Here are the two folders side by side:
I need to take all of the files in the folder on the bottom and move all of them to the folder on the top, which is my Anki media collection.
Now the front of my cards look like this:
And the back of my cards look like this:
You could leave the cards like that if you want, but I’m going to change mine up a bit. First I click “Edit” in the bottom right corner, then when the Edit box comes up I click “Cards:”
Agh HTML! Look out:
I’m going to change the front template a bit:
Specifically, I’m going to move the Snapshot and Expression to the top and remove the Sequence Marker:
I also don’t like the little tiny Play button, so under the Styling section, I’m going to change the font size for “media” from 8px to 40px:
I could end my editing here, and this is what my new and beautiful cards would look like:
But I think that what I really want is to study these cards to improve my listening. In that case, I can move the “Expression” tag to the Answer side of the card:
These give me cards that look like this:
This way, I’ll be practicing catching the spoken Japanese, using the snapshot as a memory device, and then checking my understanding on the answer side. Now that I’m at a higher level, I also like to remove the English from the cards. I don’t really need it anymore anyways, making the back side of my cards look like this:
If I don’t understand something, then I can just click edit and read the English translation in the card field:
But that rarely happens, anyways.So there you have it! Anime into intelligent flashcards! I don’t know about you, but I think that that’s amazing.
Lastly, if you’re OCD like me, you can drag your new [Shingeki no Kyojin] deck into your Anime deck, keeping everything nice and organized:
Just by dragging one deck on top of another, you can make it into a sub-deck. That way , when you add new decks for different shows, you can keep the shows (and even seasons) separate, but all categorized under the Anime flashcards deck:
If you have some trouble getting your deck set up, please check out the instructions on the subs2srs page, or this forum thread. There have been times when I’ve had technical problems getting a deck set up, but usually I’m able to get things worked out after trying a few times. 頑張って！
Free, Pre-Loaded Anime Anki Decks
I know what a lot of you have been thinking this entire time—I don’t want to do all of that work to make Anki decks, even if they are from my favorite anime! Can’t people just upload the decks for me?
Well, I can’t really do that, because it would probably violate a lot of copyrights and whatnot.
Watching Flashcard Deck Episodes with Subtitles
Generating Anki cards from anime is certainly a really fun and effective study method, but at my current level of Japanese, I’ve found that it’s much more rewarding to simply watch Japanese TV shows with full Japanese subtitles. Usually my reading speed is no problem to keep up with Japanese subtitles, and in some strange way it seems to be improving my listening. In other words, I rarely make flashcards from anime.
I prefer to watch once with Japanese subtitles, then once without subtitles. In both cases, I go back and pause the video every single time that I don’t understand something. I might even make a note about the time of the video or a certain word so that I can go back and generate a flashcard for it later.
The key here is that this is not 100% passive learning. I am not letting any Japanese go over my head. If I learn every single word of every single episode, then I can go back and re-watch this video anytime for fun, and doing so will (1) be relaxing and entertaining and (2) reinforce my Japanese skills.
If you’re still at a lower level of Japanese, you’ll probably want to incorporate English subtitles into your studies as well, but I think that you should try to avoid them as much as your level allows. The goal is to be able to watch this without any subtitles at all, right? If so, first we’re going to need to understand these videos without English subtitles, then without Japanese subtitles. It’s going to take a bit of work, but it’s totally doable.
Drill Episodes into Your Brain
Even after you’re able to go through an entire episode without any subtitles and understand everything (which is in and of itself a huge amount of work), I recommend watching that same episode without subtitles as many times as you can bear. This is one reason that I think Japanese movies are a cool source of study material. There’s no temptation to move onto that next episode.
I have had a number of periods where I watch one movie over and over again. For example, there were a couple of months last year when I watched The Hobbit in Japanese every night as I went to bed. I got home from work, put on the film, then just relaxed. I probably watched that movie 100 times. And some of the phrases really do start to sink into the deepest recesses of your brain. You hear a word that appears in the film out of context, and you can actually hear the voice of the actor saying it in the movie, because you’ve pretty much memorized the entire movie. Next thing you know, I’m trying to talk like Gandalf and improve my wizard Japanese, to the utter dismay of my wife.
Theoretically, the same thing I did with movies should be feasible with anime and TV shows as well. It simply requires a lot of repetition. Just don’t let it seem like a task. I mean, you’re studying Japanese by watching TV. That’s amazing!
Also, earlier I talked about "shadowing." Another option for this is to take the broken-up audio tracks that subs2srs created for you and then put those onto an audio device. Pick out a few tracks (i.e. bits of dialogue) that you want to master, put them on repeat, then listen to them for days and days and days.
This is also a sweet way to improve your pronunciation and intonation. Awesome!
This Is Not a Shortcut
Let’s not confuse something really fun for something really fast. I don’t think anyone can argue that this is an incredibly awesome study method. However, it’s not exactly the most structured approach to learning a language.
If you’re still a beginner, I think that you might have a very difficult time getting through episodes of anime. For someone who’s established a solid foundation (i.e. someone who has completed Phases #2-3 of this study guide), though, studying through anime like this should be a truly rewarding experience. It’s a lot of fun for me personally, as well. Going through the flashcards I just created for Shingeki no Kyojin, I was sometimes shocked at just how quickly they are speaking, particular in the fight scenes of the first episode.
The main reason that I point out that this is not a shortcut is that you’re liable to study hundreds (maybe thousands) of flashcards that contain content you already understand. In other words, you’d be studying flashcards you don’t need to be studying. At the same time, while studying through anime like this is certainly not a shortcut, it is probably a study method that you will enjoy, and I believe that to be immensely more important.
If you love a show, then why not trudge through it one painful step at a time? Take your time to learn every single word, to catch every single phrase. Then every time you watch it in the future, you can relax and let the Japanese float into your ears—all of it processed, understood, and enjoyed by your magnificent brain.
The Bad News About Studying via Anime
I don't want to bring anyone down, since we're talking about turning enjoyable anime into gross and disgusting studying, but I should warn all of you: Studying Japanese via anime is incredibly difficult for low-level students.
I love using my anime flashcards for improving my Japanese, but I already know 95% of the words showing up in those cards.
If you have a low vocabulary level, then this is going to be grueling work. However, maybe it's grueling work that you can stick to over a long period of time... which is, after all, the real secret to learning languages.
If you try to follow this method, but you find that it's too difficult for you, then I recommend trying to increase your vocabulary as much as possible.
The fastest way to increase your comprehension in Japanese is to increase your vocabulary in Japanese.
And arguably the easiest way to increase your Japanese vocabulary (and knowledge of grammar too) is to use NativShark.
If you keep learning new vocabulary, you will be able to understand more of what is pouring through your awesome, auto-generated flashcards. In other words, you'll be able to enjoy your studies more... and that means you'll be able to study more hours per day and more days per week, which means that you'll hit a point where studying Japanese becomes, in essence, effortless.
You can do this! Fight-O!
Enjoying Anime without Subtitles
From the start, this was always about finding a new, interesting, and fun way to study Japanese, right?
So while you're studying, be sure to enjoy yourself.
The most difficult thing about learning a language is not quitting.
Having fun with your studies is a seriously awesome method for not getting burnt out... which means that it's an awesome method for not quitting... which means that it's an awesome method for learning Japanese.
Good luck in your studies!
p.s. It's free to start studying at NativShark. No credit card required for signup.