Learning Japanese (and how video games can help you with it)


Grimoire no Shisho

As an attempt to break the monotony of review after review, I’ve decided to instead write an article that’s going to basically talk about my past experiences and thoughts on learning Japanese (focusing on kanji memorization), how I initially got started and kept myself going, and how video games -including visual novels- helped me with it in a variety of ways. Needless to say, as there’s this pesky little thing called “individual differences in language learning”, what I’m about to write should always be taken with a grain of salt. What I’m presenting to you is simply one way out of many, so feel free to adjust it to your own needs as you see fit.

Among learners just starting out with the language, I’ve seen many people feeling lost and overwhelmed by the prospect of starting to learn Japanese. To put it in less fancy terms, this is the problem of “where and how do I start?” And by this I mostly mean kanji, as it tends to be the single most terrifying thing for newcomers. For many students of the language, sitting in front of a kanji book with all the 2000+ characters and going through them one by one just won’t cut it. That’d be like sitting down with a copy of the Oxford Dictionary and learning everything from cover to cover.

Shining Blade

Shining Blade

You don’t necessarily have to “brute force” your way through the language learning process, but should rather strive to make it more natural and organic. In this regard, the nature of kanji characters as the primary building blocks of the language comes in handy.

First off, some introduction to kanji and how to memorize them. My own method was to first learn the most basic kanji (starter textbooks help with this) to give me a good, solid base to work with. There are also JLPT vocab lists circulating on them internets, so looking at, say, the N5 and N4 lists should be a decent start. People tend to say different things when it comes to memorizing your initial batch – a good way I’ve found is to either relate them to some familiar image in your mind, or make up little stories of your own that somehow relate to the character in question. Or, and this also works, diligently review them week after week until you can recognize them at a glance. That first step is always the hardest, that much I admit. However, once you’re done with the initial hardships of memorizing your first hundred or so characters, it’s all about the kanji compounds and mental connections. Learning kanji generally gets easier as you progress and therefore have a larger base knowledge to build upon. At first you don’t necessarily *need* to sit and memorize each reading (onyomi/kunyomi) individually, either – you should, of course, make an effort later down the road to remember at least some of them, but as a complete beginner, your time and energy can potentially be spent on other things.
Namely, you should consider learning new kanji by associating it to things you already know. This will also enable you to familiarize yourself with the various readings over time. As I’ve said, the key is to make the learning process flow more naturally. Random example: you will learn very early that 来る (kuru) is “to come”. Then a bit later you’ll learn that 未来 (mirai) is future. Oh shit, the kanji for kuru is pronounced as “rai” in that compound! You’ve just learned a new reading, which you will also see in 来年 (rainen – next year, the “coming” year)、来週 (raishuu – next week)、来月 (raigetsu – next month) and so on. Similarly, one of the first kanji people learn is 食べる (taberu), to eat. Then, still as a beginner, you’ll come across 食事 (shokuji), which can also mean “meal”. As you can see the kanji for taberu is pronounced in compounds as shoku, as in shokuji. Then, when you see stuff like 食材 (shokuzai – food ingredient)、食欲 (shokuyoku – appetite) and so on, you’ll already know how to pronounce it. There are always exceptions, but at this stage you shouldn’t worry about it. 
The Japanese language is awesome in a weird way because sometimes you can also guess the meaning of a kanji if you don’t necessarily know how to pronounce it, just by examining the kanji it’s made up from. Example: 後悔(する)(koukai(suru)) By this point you may know that 後 is generally speaking “after”, and 悔 (from 悔む, kuyamu) is to lament something. Put them together, you have a general meaning of “lament something after(wards). You guessed it, the meaning of 後悔(する) is to “regret” something. And as we know regretting is done *after* you’ve messed up.

Sol Trigger

Another cool example is 助言 (jogen), which is constructed from (助, 助ける – tasukeru – to help someone) and 言 (to remark/say something, generally related to talking/language), therefore the two put together as 助言 is literally “helpful saying/remark”. It’s not very hard to figure out that 助言 means “advice/suggestion”. And guess what, you’ve also just learned that the kanji of tasukeru can also be pronounced jo, like in 助手 (joshu – assistant, the two kanji literally meaning “helping hand”). 助言 (jogen) also tells you that 言う (iu, to say) can appear as “gen” in compounds (like 発言, hatsugen – utterance), and from joshu (助手) you can also find out that the kanji for hand (手 – te) becomes “shu” in compounds, which you will later see in other examples such as 手術 (shujutsu – operation/surgery), or 手段 (shudan – method/means/way of doing sth, handling sth), and so on.
This is just the surface of things, but I think it’s clear what I’m trying to illustrate here. My point is that everything is connected to everything, so you learn new things from… well, everything rather quickly if you pay attention and take the time to read and jot down all that you come across. It’s all a big puzzle waiting for you to solve it, and games can play a significant role in this process.
So how do games and visual novels come into this? Well, it’s one thing to learn a set number of kanji each week, it’s another to actually remember them 6 months later. What I personally found is that kanji need to be reviewed over and over again for them to finally stick – so far this is common sense, and probably doesn’t sound very exciting. However, by playing games in Japanese, you’ll naturally encounter hundreds upon hundreds of characters, some more frequently than others. And here’s the key – frequency. The more you encounter a kanji across a variety of games, the less effort it will take for you to eventually remember/recognize it later on. Association also plays a key role here, as you will often find yourself recognizing something and going “hey, I remember this from that scene in this one game!”. Remembering a vocabulary item simply because a memorable video game character uttered it might sound ridiculous, but does actually work like a charm in many cases. This applies to anime as well.

Valkyria Chronicles 3

Games -visual novels in particular- will often break away from the dry and boring world of classroom Japanese and give you a more authentic experience. Of course, it’s still going to be a script that was written in advance, but you get what I mean. You will also see frequently occurring phrases and useful idioms in their respective contexts, and will have an easier time understanding and mastering their proper usage. I also recommend starting to use Japanese-Japanese dictionaries at some point in order to better understand certain problematic phrases/words.
Naturally, selecting the right game for the job is extremely important. You might not want to plunge into a game like Valkyria Chronicles, which throws military terms at you like it was free candy. Initially picking a game with an easier subject matter and general vocabulary will make your life that much more pleasant. And since a fair number of visual novels deal with slice-of-life scenarios and high school daily life… well, you can probably tell where I’m going with this. Visual novels are also far more text-heavy than other games, and therefore among the best choices you can make when it comes to connecting study with fun. Lighter JRPGs also work here, offering a narrative with not that many complex kanji and potentially useful vocabulary (think of the usual RPG gear or item names, food names and so on). The Tales of series in particular is something I can recommend.
To add one more thought here, you also have access to ITH (Interactive Text Hooker) and Rikaichan, both extremely useful tools for study purposes – if you’re not familiar with these, I recommend a quick Google search. For non-PC games where such tools are not available (as in, you’re playing something on your DS/PSP or home consoles), you’ll actually have to take the time to look up each word. This is no wasted effort, though. Initially, you’ll probably look things up based on their radicals, which means you’ll eventually familiarize yourself with a great number of them. This is good.

Soukou Akki Muramasa

Additionally, once you’re at a more advanced stage, this can also facilitate your association skills – let’s say you want to look up 実現 (jitsugen – realization of sth, actually making sth happen). Instead of immediately looking at the radical table, you might go, “hey, although I don’t know this particular compound, I know the two characters it’s made up of! Once again, you’re basically keeping your skills sharp without maybe even realizing it yourself. Not to mention the obvious positive effect of always following a game’s narrative and therefore seeing the new vocab as it is spoken by the characters in context, and not just as yet another boring dictionary entry.
One other aspect of choosing your game is determining its reliance on kanji. Some games are simply easier to read than others, and more “accessible” titles will often write certain things in kana instead of their kanji counterparts. (Example: あなたinstead of 貴方, or かわいい instead of 可愛い). This is usually a matter of style on the part of the author (for example, to illustrate certain characters’ personality quirks), nonetheless the fact that more light-hearted games tend to rely more on kana/simpler language is a useful tool in itself, as it helps to ease the learner into the world of Japanese reading/writing by not overloading his/her brain with too many characters and complex sentences.
Besides, it also boosts confidence and motivation, making you more likely to tackle slightly harder games in the future. These two things aren’t talked about that often but are nonetheless extremely important during the learning process. Having a can-do attitude will make your Japanese studies a significantly more pleasant -and rewarding- experience.
The topic of reliance on kana now takes us to another important issue. Is kanji really necessary? Couldn’t we just write everything in kana? To answer both of those: yes, and yes we could but it would not be very pleasant. As all Japanese sentences are based on the harmony of kanji and their supporting kana, you will, in time, find your eyes skipping from one kanji character to the next within a sentence – in a way, they are the landmarks of the text, while kana is the road that connects and helps direct your gaze to get from kanji A to kanji B.

Kara no Shoujo 2

In simpler terms, kanji help you determine the vital points of a sentence and figure out where one segment ends and where the other begins. In a way, the flow of kanji in a sentence is also the flow of thoughts within your mind as you read. Looking at a text made up of purely hiragana will in most cases result in a slower reading speed and more difficulty in getting from A to B within a sentence. I myself struggle with purely kana texts, while breezing through certain simpler sentences in visual novels after one quick glance at the kanji present in it. So having this sort of mindset about the importance of kanji will considerably influence your reading comprehension/speed, at least in my experience.
I’ve talked a lot about reading, but what about writing? As in, with pen and paper. Opinions tend to differ on this. On one hand, in an age when most people communicate online via email, Twitter or Facebook and pretty much everyone has a smartphone (and typing in kana is automatically converted to kanji), the importance of “traditional” writing seems to be on a decline. On the other hand, actually writing down your characters deepens your understanding of their composition and could potentially improve your long-term results. Still, don’t panic if you happen to realize that your writing skills are somewhat lacking compared to your reading/kanji recognition – even the Japanese tend to have this problem from time to time, especially in today’s technology-centered age. In the end I leave it up to you to decide whether or not you wish to put time and effort into this, as it’s highly dependent on your personal goals with the language. At the very least, though, I would recommend learning to write hiragana/katakana so that you’re not completely without options when something does need to be written down in a hurry.

In closing, always keep in mind there is no “best” way to learn a language. You should generally be open to other methods and finding out what is the most comfortable for you personally. Regardless, I hope the above was at least moderately helpful to some of you who are still uncertain about how to go about studying and, of course, how to implement gaming into that process.


43 thoughts on “Learning Japanese (and how video games can help you with it)

  1. i want to ask where/how do you learn about common proverb/saying/slang etc. i cant remeber any example but a lot of time you encounter sentences in VN that simply does not make any sense when you translate it literally or word by word

    • While Rikaichan/jisho.org will give you explanations for a lot of idioms, your best bet is to turn to a 100% Japanese site with explanations given in Japanese. Just Google [the phrase in question] + 意味 (meaning) or とは (“definition of…”) and more often than not you will get results. Example:

      http://kotowaza-allguide.com/se/zenmonnotora.html (the phrase in question is 前門の虎、後門の狼, which is the equivalent of “out of the frying pan and into the oven”, but the Japanese sentence literally says “tiger of the front gates, wolf of the rear gates”.

      Weblio.jp is another site I tend to visit often through Google searches.

  2. I second the VNs being an amazing tool for Japanese language studies. I started with 抜きゲー when I only knew about 300 kanji and it only took me about half a year to go up to about 1000 and switch to good slice of life/romance VNs and JRPGS. Now I have JLPT1 and am studying molecular biology in a Japanese university despite never having formal education of the language. Though I must say the likes of Muramasa, Dies Irae or Fate/Stay Night are still far from an easy read for me even now.

  3. Hello garejei,
    It seems I’m stuck with this sentence 「理解するのに大分時間もかかったし迷惑もかけたけど、こうなったのはもう、分かって居た筈だろ?」. I cannot understand who exactly is causing trouble (迷惑をかける) to whom. This situation(俺達は一緒には決して帰る事が出来ない。) to author ? Or author to somebody or something?


    • It’s hard to comment on such small fragments without knowing anything about what it’s from, what the context is, who are the characters involved, what events led up to this scene, etc. But 迷惑 could either refer to something that happened prior to this scene, possibly the person referring to himself as 俺 causing trouble to someone else, like the other person he can’t return home together with; it could also be connected to him taking this long to realize the truth (理解するのに大分時間もかかった). That’s my take on it right now, but take it with a grain of salt.

      • Thank you for your explanation, it helped a lot.
        Still, sometimes it’s pretty difficult for me to understand about whom this and that parts of sentence are talking about, even with the context. If you have any advices about it I would be really happy to hear them.

      • You’ll get the hang of it eventually as you read more and more Japanese. It often helps to just think about the situation as a whole, especially sentences preceding the problematic part, and consider what would “make sense” in that given context.

  4. Hello garejei, this time I’ve got question about 気に入る. As far as I know it means “to be pleased with~” e.g. 彼女が気に入らない – ”I don’t like her.” I’m confused in 「グランマが気に入るのはわかる気がするわ」sentence, I would translate it like “I think I understand that she likes grandma.” , however I feel that my understanding of this sentence is somewhat wrong, can you please explain this part to me.


    Full video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwCcBjtQSGY (31:10)

    btw, as far as I can understand グランマ is 麗鳳.

    • If グランマ is indeed 麗鳳, then I get the feeling the conversation goes like this:

      “What do you think, Yan?”
      “She’s cute. No wonder you’ve taken a liking to her.”
      “Actually, I asked for your opinion as a senior/senpai.”

      Why else would she point out the character’s cuteness? I mean, I dunno how the characters are related to each other since I haven’t read the VN but I believe the context should make this obvious.

    • They’re a good start if you’re a beginner. They won’t teach you everything (so you won’t see any of the hardcore N1-N2 grammar in them, as far as I remember), but I think they’re a good starting point that you can build on.

  5. Hello garejei,
    I’m confused in 「ネタにされている程度であって、本気もクソもねえだろう。」 part in this sentence -「顔がどうこう言う程度のことでノーリアクションなら、ネタにされている程度であって、本気もクソもねえだろう。」. I simply cannot understand what exactly is he talking about in that part. Can you help with this part please ? And as always thank you very much!
    I would translate the first part like this “If I won’t react to his saying this and that about my face…”


    • ネタにされている(程度) means being made fun of, while [XY]もくそもない is an expression showing irritation… honestly the best way to understand it is by reading the Japanese definition with an example sentence: http://studyjapanese101.blog.fc2.com/blog-entry-690.html Think of it as something similar to XYも何もない except more vulgar.

      So my guess is that it might be something along the lines of “no way in hell I can be serious* when being made fun of”.

      *depending on the context 本気 could refer to something more specific, but if you know the context of this scene and the characters involved you should be able to figure that one out. (it most likely refers back to 本当は密かに本気なのだけど earlier.) Stuff like this is always a bit harder to translate without knowing the full context and background info.

  6. Hello again!
    I’ve been reading prologue in Dies Irae and stucked with this sentence 「犠牲としては、聖櫃創造を試みるのになるほど適当な触媒だろうよ。」, specifically with this part 「のになるほど」.
    I can only think two varients about it: maybe のに here means “in order to” and in this case what about 「なるほど」 or maybe 「のになる」 simply means to become ? Can you please expalin this part, thank you.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umwNJHyyBeg (this part – 30:55)

    • That part was a bit tricky to translate because it seems to refer to stuff the reader has yet to fully be aware of (regarding the true goal of the Longinus Dreizehn Orden), so I wasn’t 100% sure what it was referring to, having not read the VN fully yet. In fact her dialogue was probably among the hardest things to make sense of in the prologue.

      But still, I interpreted it as something like this, in a very, very literal translation: the sacrifice* is so plentiful that it’s actually a sufficient amount for becoming a fitting (適当) catalyst for “testing/attempting” (試みる) the creation of the Ark of the Covenant (聖櫃創造). ほど signals a degree or an amount, so if she says 聖櫃創造を試みるのになるほどXY, I think it’s supposed to say that something is so XY that it will be sufficient for the creation of the Ark. The sacrifice is a fitting catalyst (適当な触媒) because of that. Think of it as something similar to “試すのに相応しい量”)I believe the の part is making the verb 試みる into a noun the same way the こと suffix would. (like in 煙草を吸うのは禁止 or 煙草を吸うことは禁止)

      *The sacrifice itself is mentioned in the previous sentence as 大量の市民と同胞を道連れに、この帝都は陥落する.

      Of course, in my translation I had to change this around considerably to “it is a indeed a suitable catalyst befitting those longing for the Ark of the Covenant.” in order to somehow turn it into understandable English.

      As usual don’t take my word as the absolute truth, after all Dies is pretty difficult to make sense of.

  7. Hello,

    Do you use a monolingual dictionary (Japanese -> Japanese) or a bilingual dictionary (Japanese -> English) to look up new words? If you use a monolingual dictionary, when/how did you make the transition from bilingual to monolingual?


    • I use both at the moment. But when you get to a level where the English equivalent of the kanji you’re trying to look up just isn’t satisfying/specific enough (more problematic/advanced phrases), you’ll have no choice but to turn to monolingual dictionaries. Monolingual dictionaries are also a very useful tool for translators, since after seeing a detailed explanation of what a kanji is trying to convey (instead of just being given an equivalent in English), it becomes that much easier to phrase it in English while giving back the same core meaning.

      • Ok, Thanks!

        One more question. How advanced was your reading comprehension/vocabulary when you read your first visual novel?

      • The first VN I read in Japanese was Muramasa, so I guess my reading comprehension was fairly decent by that point. More than anything, you need a good command of grammar to be able to start reading VNs (of any level), since you can potentially fill the gaps in your vocab knowledge with dictionaries.

  8. Hello garejei, help me pelase with translating this part of sentence – ああいう奴らの家庭ほど、家に帰るとぐちゃぐちゃだったりすんのよ. Maybe I’m missing something, but that part just does’t make much sense to me. My interpritation would sound some thing like this – 方2 says that she so getting irrated from these guys, that when she comes home she is a mess, just like those guys parents which are always with them, so the translation would sound something like this – “To the extent of their family(just like their family), when I come home I’m a mess.” But I’m having some doubts with this translation, so I would really appreciate your help.


  9. Please don’t mind this question anymore, correct translation would sound something like this – “It is the families of those types that are likely to be f***ed-up (when they go home).”

    • Ah, alright then. Yeah, I was gonna say how the first part of the sentence indicates that the second half probably refers to the 家庭 (of those guys) and not the speaker herself.

  10. Hey, Garejei.
    I’m interested in learning Japanese, and your article sparked my interest up even more: and I’d like to ask you a question, since you’ve been studying for quite some time now. What do you believe to be a good starting point? I’ve looked on the internet, and haven’t found anything particularly pleasing. I’ve tried Heisig’s Method and hiragana/katakana memos, but they didn’t help much.

    • I started with the two Genki books myself, they teach basic grammar, contain a few hundred basic kanji and do not make the mistake of using romaji like some other books I’ve seen. Give them a try, should be a decent starting point. This might also prove to be useful: http://www.guidetojapanese.org/learn/grammar

      I never used Heisig’s method myself so I can’t really comment on it. The fact that it doesn’t teach readings at first always discouraged me from giving it a go.

  11. That was a nice read, though it would be nice if you could tell us which title you read or played at first.
    If your first eroge was muramasa then I’d say you were already more than self-sufficient by that point, what about games and/or jrpg? Do you have a bunch of titles to reccomend? I see you used a shining blade’s pic and in fact that was one of my option (mostly because of the translated script which could be handy)… was I right?
    So far I roughly mastered both jlpt5 and jlpt4 vocab (be it kana or kanji) and I’m trying to read a rather easy moege to improve; I can’t recognize most of the words used but I wasn’t expecting much more from this experience. Other suggestions from experts are welcomed. Thanks in advance

    • Well, I can tell you what I played in my early days, but not all of them are gonna be easy games. I often played stuff way above my skill level as a challenge.

      Tales of Graces (Japanese version), Tales of Destiny (PS2 remake) and Tales of Rebirth, also played FF Type-0 (this was of course before I played it again to do the review) and Valkyria 3 but both of those are quite difficult, I guess I was too eager to challenge myself. Yeah Shining Blade is also fine, I definitely played that one as well early on, it’s fairly simple for the most part grammar-wise. Sol Trigger and Grand Knights History, the latter being the more difficult one but it did teach me some new fantasy vocab, I guess… And Xenoblade in Japanese before it came out in English. Oh and Last Ranker, too. I briefly played Unchain Blades Exxiv as well but never finished it.

      Trying games above your skill level isn’t always a horrible idea. Later it was pretty satisfying coming back to games like Last Ranker when my Japanese got good enough to allow me to enjoy them fully, it allowed me to see how much I’ve progressed and boost my confidence a bit, which is also important in the learning process imo.

  12. While I think it’s true reading something above your currently skill level is often the best idea to improve your language comprehension I’m a bit reclutant about starting a jrpg: they’re supposed to be easier than eroge due to the lack of indirect speech but on the other hand you can’t use handly tools such as ITH and with only about 1000 words as your vocab I would’ve to look for a word too much. Reading moege is already a huge step for me, I guess that’s the right level for me right now.
    I’m trying to learn Japanese mostly for playing LoH games. Someone said they’re a bit harder than Baldr Sky but I don’t think that’s the case. Either way it will take me a lot before being able to play them.
    I too think boosting your own self-esteem is important.

    • Yeah, I see your point. Without ITH, I did actually look up kanji by radicals for every PSP game I played, and it was indeed a time-consuming process… but I was desperate to learn and improve myself.

      By LoH, you mean Legend of Heroes? As in, the Kiseki series on PSP? A friend of mine who’s passed the JLTP N1 says they’re very difficult games to read, with high level vocab and such.

  13. Yup, I meant the Kiseki series. I also read they’re supposed to be difficult but others say they aren’t as hard as people make them out to be. It would be nice to get how hard they are compared to an eroge, to make better comparisons.
    Hope I will find it out myself.

    • You could be right, haha. I’ve seen people say the Ace Attorney series was *extremely* hard to read in Japanese, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.

      I’m planning to play the Kiseki series myself at one point, so I guess I’ll find out eventually.

    • Um, the answer is in the comment right above yours, lol. Anyway, it’s Sol Trigger.

      I added the titles as captions just now. Should’ve done that in the first place, I guess.

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