Tips for studying Japanese using subtitles

I personally think that one of the best ways of studying Japanese on your own is by using tv shows or movies that include subtitles. This can improve both your listening and reading abilities, while also introducing you to new vocabulary and sentence patterns. I also think that Netflix is one of the best resources for following the tips that I am about to lay out, although if you have other ways of obtaining videos and SRT subtitles (such as torrents), that can work as well.

The following tips don’t all need to be followed, but are simply to give you some suggestions on things that I find useful or effective. You can work out your own study regimen based on what works best for you.

Choose a show that you like

I think it’s important to choose a show that you actually enjoy, because you are going to be spending some time with it! You should also try to aim for something with dialogue that is around your level, but this isn’t as important as choosing something that you like. Even shows with the most difficult language are going to have some sentences that you can understand, and no one is forcing you to understand every single sentence. With that said, however, it can be disappointing to struggle through an episode and not be able to understand significant parts of it, so you should at least try to avoid shows with more difficult speech when you are just starting out.

I also recommend starting out with a scripted show, such as an anime or drama. While many people recommend shows like Netflix’s Terrace House because it has “natural” dialogue, I think it is not really ideal for someone who is starting out. Multiple characters will be talking at the same time, and subtitles might have partial sentences from different people displayed at the same time, making it more difficult to follow. That’s not to say that these types of shows are not good to learn from, I just think you shouldn’t start off with it.

You also need to make sure that whatever show you select has Japanese subtitles available. The main reason that I like Netflix is that it has a large selection of native Japanese material in a variety of different genres that all have Japanese subtitles available. This makes it very easy to get started.

If you are still at a beginner level and don’t think you can work through an actual episode of something, then I recommend you start off with Erin’s Challenge. This is specifically developed for Japanese beginners, and you can follow many of the same tips and techniques that I outline below.

Set a goal for how quickly to progress

You also want to set a goal for yourself as to how quickly you want to progress through a series. This is to keep yourself on track and hopefully avoid giving up, or “taking a break” for a few days that turns into a few months. You might want to aim for an episode a week, though this may depend on a few different factors, such as the length of the episodes, or the level that you are currently at.

Watch the episode

For beginners, I would recommend starting out by watching the episode with subtitles in your native language. As you become better at Japanese this will likely just be a waste of time, and takes away from the important skill of trying to figure things out on your own. The main purpose of this is just so that you can understand what is actually happening in the show, and to spend some time actually enjoying what you are going to be studying from. While watching, you should be listening intently to the audio, trying to pick out words or understand what the characters are actually saying.

Once you are advanced to the point that you can understand a large portion of the episodes, then I would recommend initially watching with Japanese subtitles instead.

Go through line-by-line with Japanese subtitles

Our goal here is to try to come to understand as many lines of dialogue from the episode as possible, and learn new vocabulary and phrases. This is going to be the most significant part of the process, and where you will be spending the most of your time. There are a LOT of different things that you can do here, so I’ll go through a few of the things that I have tried:

– Use Subadub to study Netflix subtitles.

The Subadub browser extension lets you watch shows on Netflix while overlaying the subtitles in text format. This allows you to easily copy and past text (for example into a dictionary or into your SRS), or use assistive reading extensions like Rikai-kun or Yomichan. You can also turn on English subtitles within Netflix and Japanese subtitles within Subadub, to view both languages at the same time, which can help you understand new words without having to look them up. You can also download the subtitles as SRT files.

– Watch Anime and Dramas with Japanese subtitles using Animelon or Anjsub

Animelon and Anjsub are two sites that let you watch Japanese content with subtitles. I’m pretty sure that they are not entirely legal, but if you are ok with that, then they are pretty nice options, especially if you don’t have a Netflix subscription.

– Watch downloaded shows using PotPlayer

If you like to download videos files onto your PC from torrent sites (or wherever), then PotPlayer is a pretty nice video player to use for studying from them. You can get Japanese subtitles for many anime from Kitsuneko.net to use with this. PotPlayer lets you have multiple subtitle languages at once, lets you easily copy a word or entire line to the clipboard, and you can easily seek to the previous or next subtitle, letting you replay lines over and over.

– Use Subs2SRS to study subtitles anytime, anywhere

Subs2SRS is a fantastic tool that can generate Anki flashcards from subtitle files. This works pretty good with subtitles that you download from Netflix using the Subadub extension mentioned above. A lot of people use Subs2SRS in different ways, but I prefer to use it for a technique that I have dubbed micro reading. That link will show you how exactly I set it up, but I essentially just create flashcards for an entire episode, then use Anki to read through them all once, discarding ones that I understand, and keeping ones that I want to study further. This lets me work my way through an episode whenever I have a few minutes free throughout the day, rather than having to sit down at my PC for a long period of time trying to work through the episode.

SRS what you want to remember

Once you have gone through the episode looking up words, then you might want to add them into your SRS software (such as Anki) to study and remember them. It’s up to you how you do this. Some people might want to try to learn everything that they didn’t understand at first, while others might just go for what they feel might be most important. If you hate doing SRS reviews, then maybe don’t even do this. Figure out what works for you. One thing I do strongly recommend though, is to study short phrases or collocations rather than an entire subtitle line.

Watch the episode again with Japanese subtitles

Finally, once you have gone through the episode, studying and learning lots of new material, then it’s time to watch once more. This time you will just watch the episode normally, with Japanese subtitles. You might be shocked at how much you can understand now!

Listen to the audio

For listening practice, it’s good to take the episode audio and just listen to it whenever you can. It’s easier if you download shows from torrent sites, because if you have a file of the actual episode, there are tools that you can use to easily extract the audio so you can listen to it seperately. If you are watching a Netflix show, things are a little less convenient, but you can still use the Netflix app on your phone to play the episode anytime, and it sometimes even allows you to download episodes onto your device so they can be played repeatedly even when you don’t have internet access.

Move on to the next episode

Each episode will probably become a little bit easier than the last one, as you start to accumulate more knowledge. Once you have made it through an entire season of a tv series, you might even want to go back and watch them all again, either with Japanese subtitles, or without subtitles at all.

Subadub – A great new browser extension for Netflix subtitles

I recently became aware of a brand new extension for both Chrome and Firefox called Subadub, which enhances subtitles in Netflix to make language study easier.

This extension will add some additional on-screen options when you are watching Netflix through your web browser. It will display subtitles as an additional text-based overlay on top of the video, allowing you to copy and paste text as you like, or even use Japanese reading-assistance addons like Rikaikun or Yomichan with it. In addition, you can download the subtitles in SRT format.

Anyone who has been following this blog for a while may know that I have had an obsession with Netflix subtitles for a few years now, and have worked to find better and easier ways of using the subtitles for language learning purposes. I am overjoyed to finally see a plugin like this, because it is basically what I have wanted from the very beginning, and is far better than the other methods that I have been using.

Please check it out!

Chrome version
Firefox version

PNG2SRT (tool to OCR image subtitles)

Download on Github

This is a tool that can perform OCR (optical character recognition) on XML/PNG subtitles and output the result as an SRT file. This can be used for subtitles obtained from DVD and Blu-ray. The Google Cloud Vision API is used for the OCR, and it has very good accuracy. This program is based on a python script originally posted by zx573 on the kanji koohii forums.

Before using this program, you may need to get your subtitles into the XML/PNG format. For DVD or Blu-ray, I’m not going to write a detailed guide on ripping subtitles from the disc, as there are plenty of other guides out there on the internet. It is assumed that you can figure out how to obtain your subtitles as SUB/IDX or SUP format. From there, I recommend using a Windows program called Subtitle Edit to convert them into XML/PNG format. There may be other software that can do this, but Subtitle Edit is the one I am most familiar with.

Using Subtitle Edit to convert DVD or Blu-ray subs to XML/PNG

The File menu in Subtitle Edit has several options to import your Subtitles that are in SUB/IDX or SUP format. Just choose the appropriate one, and then you will come to an import screen. From here, you just need to right-click on one of the subtitle lines, then select Export > BDN xml/png.

Then on the next screen then comes up, you just want to select “export all lines”, and select a folder to save to.

Now you should have a folder containing a bunch of PNG images and an XML file. The next step is to create an API key on the Google Cloud Platform.

Create an API Key for Google Cloud Vision API

Google’s OCR is by far the most accurate I have seen, and works quite well. It is also free for a limited amount of use each month. According to their current pricing structure, you can OCR up to 1,000 items per month for free. My program can batch several PNG images into a single item, so you should be able to do several episodes or movies in a single month without having to pay anything. Google also offers a great trial offer (at least at the time I write this). You can get $300 of free credit when you sign up, and you have no obligation pay anything or continue using the service.

If you sign up for the Google Cloud Platform, then after logging in, you need to enable the Cloud Vision API and generate an API key.

  1. In the left hand menu, select APIs & Services > Dashboard
  2. Select Enable APIs & Services
  3. In the search box, type “vision”, and then select Google Cloud Vision API.
  4. Select Enable. It may walk you through setting up a billing profile at this point if one has not been created already. Again, there is no obligation to actually pay anything, as you can use this API a certain amount for free each month, and you may get free credits when signing up.
  5. Back at the APIs & Services Dashboard, select Credentials > Create Credentials > API Key.
  6. Once you have generated the API key, be sure to copy it or keep it open in your browser so you can access it later.

Use PNG2SRT to OCR the images

Now, we can use PNG2SRT to send the subtitle images through the Cloud Vision API.

Download

Version 1.0.1 – May 12, 2018

Download on Github

Download the appropriate version for your computer, and then extract the archive.

Next, you need to paste your API Key into a text file named API_KEY.txt located in the same folder as the application (the file should contain ONLY your API key, and no other text).

When you run the application, it should look like this:

First, you need to make sure that your API Key is displayed correctly in the top area. If not, make sure you did the previous step correctly.

Then, you just select a folder containing XML/PNG files, which is what will be converted to SRT.

Note: You may get an error if the folder name contains unicode characters. In that case, please rename the folder to use English characters.

There is also an option to select the language that you want Google to recognize. It defaults to Japanese, because that is what I use, but you can select whichever language you need. You can find a full list of language codes here.

The only other option is the chunk size. The default of 15 is usually fine. If you press the start button, and the program appears to begin working but then gives you an error message part way through, you might need to decrease the chunk size to a smaller value like 10 or even 5.

After you press start, if all goes well, the program should run and it will output an SRT file inside your input folder.

Extracting Subtitles from Netflix with Netflix Subtitle Downloader

Article Updated 1/9/2019

I now recommend using the Subadub extension for studying Japanese on Netflix. The information below is still useful if you would like to batch-download subtitles for an entire series.

Having subtitle scripts from TV shows that you are watching is an excellent study aid. Not to mention that they can be used with Subs2SRS to easily import sentences into Anki! These days, many people tend to watch Netflix more than a lot of the traditional media. I’ve also seen numerous people talking about how the Netflix Original “Terrace House” is great for Japanese listening practice, because it is unscripted and captures natural dialog.

How to rip Japanese Subtitles from Netflix

First, you will need to download an addon for your web browser which allows you to run userscripts. One such addon is called ViolentMonkey, and it works with either Firefox or Chrome (as well as some other browsers). There are several other similar addons as well, such as TamperMonkey and GreaseMonkey. These all mostly do the same thing, so just pick one. A simple Google search for any of those titles should easily lead you to a page that lets you install it in your web browser.

Next, you want to install the Netflix Subtitle Downloader. After installing it, you will notice some new options appear inside the subtitle selection menu on the Netflix website. Simply select the subtitle language that you want, and then click on one of the download buttons. It’s that simple! You might need to give it a moment after clicking the button while it begins downloading.

A recent update of this tool now lets it download subtitles for all available languages at once. Subtitles are downloaded in VTT format, and can be converted to SRT or other formats using SubtitleEdit.

Netflix in Japanese

Wouldn’t it be great if Netflix offered lots of awesome Japanese content? Well actually, they do! They just like to keep it hidden away. Almost every Netflix Original is dubbed into Japanese, and contains Japanese subtitles as well. But in order to access it, you may first need to change Netflix’s language setting to Japanese.

If you are just browsing Netflix in English, you probably wont find Japanese audio options anywhere. I recently started seeing Japanese subtitle options start appearing, but until recently, those were hidden away too.

netflix-english

So to change this, all you need to do is go into Account Settings, then look for the Language option, and then you can select 日本語. That’s all there is to it! Now, Netflix’s entire interface will be changed to Japanese. And, when you check the available audio and subtitle options…

netflix-language

And now you can watch all your favorites in Japanese!

netflix-japanese

Furthermore, you can use the following link to specifically seek out shows that have either Japanese subtitles or Japanese audio: https://www.netflix.com/browse/subtitle/ja

If the link takes you to a login page, you will need to login and then click the link again.