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.

Where to find free Japanese Manga

I have recently been looking for websites where I can read manga in Japanese for free (legally), and I have managed to find quite a few! Manga is great for reading practice because the pictures can really help give you additional context about what is happening in the story. If you live in Japan, its pretty easy to find cheap manga all over the place, but for people living elsewhere, it has traditionally been both difficult to get and expensive. So knowing that there are so many online sources now is fantastic!

Some of the manga websites below will let you read titles in their entirity for free, and some will only let you read a few chapters for free, and encourage you to either purchase the rest or subscribe to their service. I have not subscribed to any of these services, so I’m not sure what difficulties you might face if trying to do so outside of Japan. However, there are so many different titles available, there is enough free content to last you for ages!

ComicWalker

Featuring titles from Kadokawa publishing, you can find some famous classics here, such as Evangelion and Lucky Star, as well as the often-recommended manga for Japanese beginners, Yotsubato! There are typically several free chapters available for each manga, including the first few chapters and the latest few chapters.

Shonen Jump+

I think almost everyone knows of Shonen Jump, due to their mega hits like Dragon Ball and One Piece. It looks like they make certain titles available for free in their entirity on certain days of the week.

pixiv comic

Pixiv features a lot of works from amateur artists, but it looks like they also carry titles that were published in popular magazines as well. Many of the titles here only feature a few chapters for free, but I have seen some titles that have every chapter available!

S-MANGA

S-Manga is run by Shueisha publishing, which is the parent company of Shonen Jump, so you can find many Jump titles here in addition to others. For each volume or book of a series, you can typically read the first chapter online for free.

MangaZ

Formerly known as J-comi, according to Wikipedia, this site was created to make out-of-print manga available online. You can read titles in their entirity for free. It includes some classics like Love Hina, but it looks like a lot of the most popular items on here are erotic titles.

eBookJapan

They want you to buy the full books, but select titles will let you read several entire volumes for free! If you just want to buy books in electronic form, it seems that you can find almost any popular title on here.

Sai-Zen-Sen

I think the most interesting parts of this site are the Twitter 4-koma and the 4Pages sections.  These are particularly nice for beginners because they are so short, so its much easier to read a bit whenever you get some free time. The Twitter 4-koma section has several manga where each chapter consists of just 4 panels. There are links to allow you to go back and read each one from the very beginning. The 4pages section is similar, but each chapter is 4 pages long, and they all seem to be in full color, which is nice.

Are there any other good sites that I missed? Let me know!

Free Japanese Readers

I recently came across an archive of free readers that I’ve never seen before, created by the Japan Foundation. They are quite basic and each one is very short, so they are good for beginners of Japanese. These aren’t as good as some of the ones that you can buy, but you can’t beat free. There are about 25 of them and they are licensed under creative commons.

KCよむよむ

NES/SNES Classic Manuals

If you are a fan of classic Nintendo games like I am, then you might be interested in reading the original game manuals in Japanese!

The SNES Classic was released today, and along with it Nintendo has posted up the original manuals for all of the games included on it, in multiple languages! And of course, the manuals from the NES Classic are all available as well. It can be a lot of fun to compare the Japanese manuals with the English versions as well!

NES/Famicom manuals

SNES/Super Famicom manuals

Language selection is in the Top-Right corner of the page.

Hirogaru – Yet another source of beginner’s reading material!

I can’t believe how much reading material I have been finding recently. I remember my early days in Japanese, struggling to find anything at all that was on my level, but now I keep seeing more and more material becoming available. This latest resource is the newest website from The Japan Foundation. Called ひろがる、it launched in 2016 and seems to have at least 50-60 easy articles on it so far.

The level of the material seems to be aimed at those who have perhaps completed about one year of studying (able to pass JLPT N5, or completed the first Genki textbook), but may still be somewhat challenging for more advanced students as well, due to the diverse range of topics that the articles cover. Topics include:

  • Astronomy
  • Outdoors
  • Martial Arts
  • Tea
  • Sweets
  • Shopping
  • Calligraphy
  • Anime/Manga
  • Books
  • Temples
  • Music
  • Aquarium

Each topic generally contains about 4-5 articles that you can read. I believe that they may be adding new articles from time to time, but it does not seem to be at a very fast pace. Besides just the articles, there is usually a short video about each topic, as well as some short commentary from Japanese people saying what that topic means to them. For some reason, most topics also have a section containing pictures of food. There is also a comment section in each topic, which allows you to write a Japanese response to three different questions.

The articles are really the main attraction of this site, so let’s talk about those for a bit. Each article is fairly short, so that a beginner student could probably read it in 5 or 10 minutes. The articles are broken up into several paragraphs, and each paragraph has audio so you can hear it read aloud. At the end of each article you will find a quiz with a couple of multiple choice questions, to test your comprehension. At the top of the site, there are some controls which can assist you in reading the articles. One is a “Ruby” toggle, which turns furigana on or off for all of the kanji in the article. The other setting is an “English/Japanese” toggle. This seems to be poorly named, because it does not function how you might expect. If you set it to “English”, the articles remain fully in Japanese. The only thing that really changes is the navigation buttons, and also when it is set to English there will be a button under each paragraph that you can press to see a list of the difficult vocabulary. As such, I would recommend keeping it set to “English” at all times so you have access to the vocabulary words.

Overall its a nice site, and certainly worth spending some time on. My only real gripe is that the articles are kinda lame and boring (to me at least), but that’s sort of hard to avoid with these kinds of generic topics. But all in all, it’s a fantastic source of reading material at a level where such material has often been overlooked. Check it out!