Japanese Games

Learn Japanese Through Video Games

Many people would like to be able to integrate video games into their Japanese studies, but it’s often easier said than done. It’s very easy to feel like you are in well over your head when it comes to most games. There are a lot of different factors that can make things more difficult than you would imagine, so I would like to discuss some of these things, and talk about what you should look for when trying to choose a game to get started with. And before we get into this, lets be honest here–most games are fairly difficult. Your Japanese ability needs to be at least equivalent to JLPT N4 level before even a small handful of games will begin to be accessible to you. For the majority of games, your Japanese probably needs to be at least at N2 level. But the purpose of this article is to try to break down some of those barriers, and open up more games to less advanced learners. So, if you are ready to learn Japanese through video games, let’s get to it!

Choosing a game

First of all, the most important thing is to choose a game that is on your level. If you can’t understand the majority of the game without having to look things up constantly, then you won’t learn much. If you feel lost, then it will only make you frustrated, and you will start trying to play the game without even reading most of the text. As I said above, your Japanese level probably needs to be about equivalent to JLPT N4 level before you even begin to think about playing through anything in Japanese, and N3 equivalency is probably more realistic. So in other words, you should be fairly proficient in Japanese before you can even hope to understand a real game! Prior to that, you will be stuck just using a handful of games specifically designed for learning Japanese, though the effectiveness and entertainment value of most of those is rather questionable. And when you do get to the point you can begin playing games, you are likely going to have to focus on games aimed at children first.

If you are still in the very beginning stages of learning Japanese, you might want to look at Influent, which is a game designed to help teach you about 400-500 words of beginner vocabulary. The Nintendo DS also had a Japanese learning game called My Japanese Coach, which teaches beginner level Japanese. Some critics have said that My Japanese Coach does contain a few errors, primarily regarding kanji stroke order, but I believe it should be alright for the most part. The real question though, is whether you should even bother with these as opposed to learning through traditional means? Since I learned through traditional means, I really can’t answer that for you. But, give them a shot if you like.

Now, when your Japanese ability starts coming together and you think you might be reaching the point where you could try playing something, you are going to have to think very carefully about what you will be able to play. If you are going to be spending money on a game, you definitely want to do your research before plopping down a large sum on something that might be way out of your league! First of all, you want a game that has a fairly large amount of text, and is of a reasonable length. This cuts out a lot of the classic games from the NES era, and cuts out several genres of games almost entirely. We are mostly going to be limited to things like RPGs or adventure games. You also want to make sure the game displays the text onscreen, and lets you advance it with a button press. This cuts out many things like action games which might have a strong story focus. After all, if you don’t have time to read the text, what are you hoping to gain from this? The difficulty of the language used in the game is also critical. A tactical RPG based on historical storylines or a sci-fi epic might not be the best choices to start off. But something that has a simplistic story involving more typical everyday things might be a much better option. Look for something where you have about 80% or better comprehension.

Many older games have technical limitations that can make learning from them difficult. For instance, in the NES/Famicom era, cart sizes were too limited to display kanji most of the time, or even a large amount of text in most cases. Things would also sometimes have to be written strangely in order to fit in limited space. Throughout the 16-bit to 64-bit eras, things improved a lot, but games were still often produced at low resolutions. This means that though they began using kanji in most games, it can often be extremely difficult to read, as the strokes often just blur together. If you need to try looking up a kanji in a dictionary, you might not even be able to do so, because you are unsure exactly what it’s supposed to look like. And don’t even expect furigana!

More modern games bring a lot of improvements that often make them better to learn from. Higher resolution text, furigana on occasion, and even voice acting all serve to make things easier on the learner. As good as that sounds, these newer games can bring their own problems as well. For instance, the 3DS system is region locked, meaning that for many people the only options to play a Japanese game on it are to either buy a separate Japanese system, or utilizing piracy, which could possibly get your system banned from Nintendo’s online services. This is a real shame too, because it has several games which are quite nice for learning from, such as Youkai Watch, which not only uses mostly simple Japanese, but has furigana as well.

Choosing a good game for learning Japanese turns out to be a pretty difficult task. After all, game creators are definitely not making their games with language learners in mind! But a little research up front will go a long ways towards stopping a lot of frustration down the road. Now, lets move on to how to actually go about playing and learning from Japanese games.

Use Scripts

When it comes to playing games in Japanese, scripts are your savior. Having a text file containing all of the Japanese text from the game you are playing makes things so much more comfortable, as it’s a lot easier and quicker to look up words and phrases that you might not know. But… there don’t seem to be a whole lot of Japanese scripts out there! This post on the Koohii forums links to a handful, but many of those games aren’t using the easiest Japanese to begin with. If you want to try your luck at searching for Japanese scripts online, the word for “script” is セリフ集.

If you can’t find a Japanese script, then the next best thing is an English script. While it doesn’t make looking up words any easier, it will help you to understand the storyline and give you some hints as to the meaning of some words and phrases that you have difficulty with. Loading up an English script into your tablet or phone and keeping it by your side while you play through a game can be a big help. You can sometimes find game scripts on GameFAQs, but it’s fairly hit-or-miss.

Another cool site is Learning Languages Through Video Games. This site has translated scripts for several games, mostly for the NES and SNES. Most of the games covered have very small amounts of text (Mario 3 isn’t exactly known for its intricate story!) so actually playing these games in Japanese probably won’t be terribly beneficial. But it can still be cool to go back and look through the translations for games that you might have played in your childhood.

Let’s YouTube!

But what if you can’t even find a script for the game you want to play? Well in this case, we can turn to “Let’s Play” videos on YouTube! While you play the Japanese game, you can follow along with a Let’s Play of the English version of the game. Or if you are lucky, you might find someone playing through the Japanese game while translating it to English in realtime, such as on the RisingFunGaming channel. Many Let’s Play videos tend to have a lot of commentary over the gameplay, so if you prefer not to hear that, you might also want to search for videos with “longplay” in the title. These videos generally don’t have commentary.

If you really aren’t that keen on actually playing games, you might find that watching other people play through them is just as satisfying. By simply watching a Let’s Play or longplay of a Japanese game, you can pause and rewind in YouTube to take things at your own pace, and learn from a game just as effectively as you would by playing it on your own.

And for improving your listening skills, maybe you want to watch some Let’s Plays done by actual Japanese gamers? Just search on YouTube for the word 実況 along with the Japanese title of the game you are looking for!

Or maybe you are more into the competitive side of gaming? The YouTube channel Shi-G features Japanese Smash Brothers tournament play, sometimes with commentary, sometimes without. Adding 大会 into your YouTube searching can bring back results featuring tournament gameplay, through many of the videos tend to be from tournaments outside of Japan, so they may not be useful.

Visual Novels are games too! Sort of…

Ah, visual novels. The finest pornographic literature that the world of gaming has to offer! If you are over 18 and have become fairly proficient in Japanese, then these might be a good option. While most of these really aren’t suited to be classified as “games”, they usually do tend to offer some amount of interactivity and branching story paths. And to be fair, they aren’t all pornographic, and some of them even make their way onto mainstream gaming consoles. Furthermore, these types of games are great for learning Japanese, not only because there are a ton of them and they all have massive amounts of text, but there are also some amazing tools available to make reading them so much easier!

By using Interactive Text Hooker and Translation Aggregator, you can extract the text into a copy/pasteable format and get dictionary and translation assistance in realtime! A newer application called Visual Novel Reader also looks like it has some amazing features, including many of the things you can get from the previous two tools, in addition to other features like crowd-sourced translations!

To get started with setting up the software and choosing some easy visual novels, you might want to check out this article at Visual Novel Tea Party, or the visualnovels subreddit, which has a list of easy VNs to start with, and a guide to getting your software set up.

Finally, if you just want to check this stuff out without having to spend a lot of time figuring out how to work all this stuff, you might want to take a look at The Asenheim Project, which has several older Visual Novels emulated through Javascript, allowing you to play them through your web browser and look up words using Rikaichan. Most of the VNs listed here have English translations available, so you could open two browser windows side-by-side, with the Japanese version in one and English in the other!

Remember to Have Fun

Trying to play games in Japanese, especially when you aren’t that good at Japanese, can be really stressful. If it’s not working for you, don’t force it! Step back for a bit and study some more, and maybe you will be ready later on. Games are supposed to be fun, so don’t let learning take all of the fun out of them!

And every now and then, you just need to unwind and relax. Here are some things to check out when you need a break:

Game Center CX

Most gamers will probably enjoy watching Game Center CX, a Japanese television show dedicated to retro gaming. It’s been going for over 10 years, and most of the episodes have been fansubbed! While the Japanese tends to be on the more difficult side in my opinion, its a fun distraction that gives a lot of insight into the Japanese viewpoint on retro games.

Legends of Localization

A cool website that I stumbled across is Legends of Localization, which takes a look at various questions regarding the translation and localization of games, and goes back to look at the original Japanese, to see what the games were really saying. It also has some in-depth comparisons between the English and Japanese versions of several games, including Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Earthbound, Final Fantasy IV, and more!

Alright, that’s it for now! In my next post, I will be listing my top 11 games for Japanese learners!

A Thought Experiment

Do you find that your output ability lags far behind your recognition ability? If you spend a lot of time reading, listening, or reviewing recognition cards in your SRS, but you rarely speak or write, then you will probably find this to be true. The best way to increase your ability to output Japanese is simply to practice output! A lot of people (me included) may avoid output as much as possible. There are a lot of reasons, but I think the main ones are typically: 1) It can be difficult and time consuming, and 2) You don’t want to interact with others.

Well, what if I told you that there is a way that you can practice your output without using up any extra time out of your schedule and without interacting with others? With a simple exercise that anyone can do, there are no more excuses for avoiding output!

Don’t Be Scared of Output

But first of all, let’s clear something up. Output is not going to hurt you. Some people have this idea that trying to output before they have become masters at the language will somehow hurt them in the long run. I seriously can not even begin to follow the logic behind this reasoning, but the argument I typically hear seems to go along the lines of “you risk creating incorrect output, and then getting it so ingrained into your mind that it becomes habit, and then for some unexplained reason, you will forever be unable to correct this habit.”

I don’t care how much input you consume, and how long you wait before outputting anything. You will make mistakes. Just stop and think about how many mistakes you probably make on a daily basis in your own native language. How many mistakes are in this very article? If I can’t even speak my own language without making errors, then I sure as heck am never going to speak a second language without errors! And that’s just the point! We don’t have to be error free. The point of a language is simply being able to communicate ideas. If our message gets across, then we have hit the main target. Anything beyond that is icing on the cake!

Furthermore, the benefits of output are enormous. By actively trying to recall words and phrases rather than simply recognizing them, we create new paths to this data in our brains, and we strengthen existing paths. This lets us access the data easier and faster. It’s also the best way of practicing grammar. Just look at it this way: when you were studying mathematics in school, what was more beneficial, listening to a lecture from the teacher for 30 minutes, or actually working the practice problems?

After all, trying to produce output is the only way to be sure about whether you actually know something or not! As you go about this exercise and come across words or ideas that you don’t know how to express, or you are unsure whether or not you are expressing them correctly, try to make a mental note of it and then check up on them later. You might find that you are simply unable to remember a lot of words and phrases that you thought you knew. And that’s the key point here. By identifying those failures, it shows you what you need to study more. Don’t be afraid of failing—embrace it.

Narrate Your Life

My method of practicing output is quite simple. Just talk to yourself! You don’t have to literally speak out loud, just saying it in your mind is enough (although speaking aloud can be great practice as well!) Talk about what you are doing at any given moment during the day. Getting ready in in the morning? Describe everything you do, as you take a shower, brush your hair, eat breakfast, and so on. While going to school or work, describe the scenery that you pass by. Describe the tasks that you are doing at work. Describe exactly what you are doing as you operate a PC. Are you a daydreamer? Convert your thoughts to Japanese! Rehearsing a conversation in your mind? Try saying it in Japanese. Counting sheep to fall asleep? Count in Japanese. We all literally have so much time available during our lives when we may be physically busy, but we are mentally available. Don’t just let that all go to waste!

I don’t want to discount the positive impact that actually conversing with another human being can have. But sometimes, it just isn’t going to happen. Maybe you are shy, maybe you don’t have anyone to speak with, maybe you don’t have the time, or maybe time zones are a big factor in your ability to have a conversation partner. But whatever the reason, this might be the next best alternative, and there are no excuses to weasel your way out of it.

Learn Japanese by Watching Anime, Movies, and Dramas

If you are learning Japanese, chances are you probably also happen to like some Japanese entertainment such as movies, dramas, and anime. So, are you using those things to your benefit? After all, we learn best when we are engaged with interesting material! If you haven’t tried it yet, then I’ll show you how to get started.

Beginners

For anyone who has just started or has yet to begin learning Japanese, a dose of reality: you aren’t going to learn the language exclusively from watching stuff. You have to study and work hard. Anime and movies can be a fun part of an overall balanced study regimen, but its only a small piece of the puzzle. Before you get started here, you need to have a solid foundation to work from. Once you have picked up a bit of the grammar and began to build up a vocabulary, then we can start getting into the fun stuff.

If you have been studying for a bit, but are still in the beginner level where you can’t really understand natural Japanese at all, but can pick out a few words and phrases here and there, then you should primarily be watching things with English subtitles at this point. That’s right, with English subtitles, just like you normally do. While you are watching, you want to try to force yourself to really pay attention to what the characters are saying. Listen for things that you recognize, try to get a rough idea of what’s going on, maybe even try repeating lines after the characters say them. At this stage, you are still just gaining familiarity with the language. Don’t expect to really learn anything from the anime itself yet at this point, it’s more just a tool to increase your familiarity and your recognition of what you have already learned.

Some people might wonder “wouldn’t it be better to watch without subtitles?” The answer to that is no. According to Stephen Krashen’s Input Hypothesis, language acquisition takes place when the learner is consuming comprehensible input that is just slightly above the learner’s current level. In other words, if you don’t know what the characters are saying, you can listen to it 100 times and you still aren’t going to know what they are saying. As I said before, at this stage you aren’t trying to learn anything new from the anime, you just want to reinforce what you have already learned. Also, in this paper by Martine Danan, we can see that some research has shown that watching material with subtitles in your native language can be superior to watching without any subtitles.

Intermediate Learners

Once your Japanese is at the point where you are understanding large passages from shows, or you feel like you know most of the words but your mind just can’t process them quickly enough to fully understand, then it might be time to move on to the next step, and begin actually learning from the shows that you are watching.

At this point, you are going to begin using Japanese subtitles. For anime, one of the largest collections of Japanese subtitles can be found at kitsuneko.net. For dramas, take a look at d-addict’s subtitles index. For movies, I’ll just have to leave it in your hands, as I haven’t found a good resource. Also, movies might generally only have subtitles available in the form that comes directly from the DVD or Blu-ray disc, which are actually images rather than text. These are less than ideal, but they can work in a pinch if you can’t find anything else.

While you are still at a lower level in Japanese, I highly recommend trying to choose shows that have simpler language–things like slice-of-life or high school dramas, or maybe things directed more towards children. You want to make this as easy for yourself as possible! I would highly recommend the anime “Chi’s Sweet Home” to start off. You can find both Japanese and English subtitles, the language is simple, and the episodes are only about 3 minutes each!

Next, you generally might want to start off by watching your chosen show with English subtitles if you have never seen it before, to learn the characters and the story. Then, you want to start reading through the Japanese subtitles. Look up words that you don’t know, and try to understand everything that is going on. If there are some parts here and there that you don’t get, that’s alright, but if there are a lot of parts you don’t understand, then you need to either find something easier or study other things for a few more months. If you like, you can load the subtitles up in Aegisub, a subtitling program which will allow you to go line by line and listen to the audio as you read the text. Be sure to look over the Aegisub manual on their website in order to learn how to use this software. I highly recommend using Aegisub to read through the script, because it will allow you to easily make any changes to the synchronization of the subtitles, to make sure they are lined up properly with your audio. Another cool thing that you can try is to “export” the script from Aegisub as a plain text file, and then you can open up the text file in your web browser where you can use Rikaichan to help read it. Update: I now recommend using PotPlayer rather than Aegisub.

Once you have managed to read through the subtitles for an episode, now its time to go to the next stage and utilize subs2srs to generate Anki cards which you can study! Subs2srs is fairly straightforward, and a simple guide to using it is right there on it’s own website. In addition, you can also use Audio Lesson Studio to generate audio lessons which you can listen to on your phone or mp3 player!

Once you have gained familiarity with the language used in the episode, now try going back and watching it without subtitles. You will be amazed at how well you can follow along now! With each episode you go through, you should find that things get easier and easier, as there will be a lot of repeated topics and vocabulary, on top of the fact that your knowledge of Japanese is increasing.

A Starter Deck

If you are looking for something to get started on, I would recommend the following movie.

nyanko_the_movie_2

A cute and somewhat sad film about cats, the narrator speaks clearly and quite simply for the most part. I’ve posted up my subs2srs deck in a thread over on the koohii forums. If it looks like something you would be into, find a copy of the movie and give it a shot. Otherwise, feel free to start off with something that you would enjoy better.