A Gamer’s Guide to Leveling up Your Japanese


By Rowan Carmichael

Want to level up your Japanese? Everyone has their own method, but there’s nothing like making your hobby a +1 bonus to language learning. Some JETs come to Japan, or even start learning the language, because they love games, so time to level up the gamer way.

Know what you want from any given game you play.

This is easily the most important advice you will ever hear for gaming in a foreign language. Different games you play for different purposes, so what you do and don’t need to learn in order to play changes greatly depending on the genre and what you want to get out of it. If you are playing an Adventure game but skipping through all the text you don’t understand, you probably aren’t getting what you want out of it.

Here are some examples of goals for a few different games:

a) I want to enjoy the combat in Jump Ultimate Stars. I don’t care about the text, I just want to progress. (Strategy: Use a walkthrough to solve progression problems. It’s not a game suitable for studying Japanese, although you’ll probably notice patterns in the UI.)

b) I want to enjoy the gameplay in Sengoku Basara 3. (Strategy: Look up words for menus and maybe some in-game alerts, but for story you’ll play it by ear and read what you can without doing much homework.)

c) I want to enjoy the voice performances in Umineko. (Strategy: Since the main part of your enjoyment is the vocal performances, you should be looking up some words to confirm understanding, but not necessarily every word or grammar point. The core study goal here is listening.)

d) I want to understand the story of Corpse Party in Japanese. (Strategy: look up words and grammar until you have a good idea of most text boxes, but not necessarily every word or grammar point.) With concrete goals, you can prevent yourself from getting side-tracked or stuck on things that aren’t helping those goals.

Know your level!

Now you have a goal, it is important to see if that goal is viable. If you can’t read the following sentence 私はポケモンが大好きです, then maybe you should not be trying to play Steins;Gate in Japanese. Just be reasonable, know where you struggle and be prepared to struggle. Do keep in mind though that with patience and a good dictionary on hand to help you, you should be able to solve most vocabulary problems eventually. Even if your level is low, you can struggle through some difficult visual novels with enough dedication. People beat Final Fantasy IX at level one, after all.

Have a smartphone dictionary on hand and know how to use it.

For mobile dictionaries, I recommend JED, a fairly basic but never-fail free dictionary. If you are doing any kind of looking up in your games, you should make a list to review with later. With JED you can attach tags to words, which you can then add to a program like Anki for review, or bring up the tag list as a quick reference while playing.

Another app you might find useful is the Google Translate app. While its translations are less than ideal, that is not its strength for gaming. You can have it scan photos taken with your smartphone for text. Use it to scan photos of your game screen to help you get a few kanji readings quickly. Used in tandem with a dictionary this can be a powerful time-saver.

But remember your goals. If you just want general understanding, not every unknown word needs to be dealt with immediately while playing. Think about your level and where you want to be. If you want to progress more quickly, use intuition, voice acting, and context-based assumption if you feel you have a good idea and have already just looked up four words.

Use game features to your learning advantage!

Does your game have a lot of voice acting? Backlog with the option to replay voices like Persona 4 Golden? Maybe a cutscene replay option like Bravely Default? Excellent, you are set for a good learning experience. You can use the voices to follow along with the Japanese text to help you get a feel for it, then can go back and read through to check meaning. With higher resolutions on handhelds and Nintendo making an effort, furigana has never been in more games than this generation. While constantly looking up kanji is a pain, having furigana to guide you without the time pressure of voice acting can be a relief. Many games still don’t have this feature, though, so don’t assume it’s there.

Use genre conventions to make the experience easier.

Look at this screenshot. If you are familiar with games, you have probably already worked out it is an RPG of some kind, even if you don’t recognize Final Fantasy VII. Being a JRPG, there are certain things we can assume about the menu. Somewhere there are probably Magic/Skills, status, equip and item options. Maybe even a config and save option too. In a few minutes you can skim through all those menus, check what they are, and associate meaning with the words up there. You might have learned まほう (magic) and そうび (equip) without even needing the dictionary.

Learning words in context is incredibly powerful, and games can let you use knowledge you might have already established to help you learn more. Since genre is particularly codified for games it is a powerful piece of context that helps you pre-emptively guess at what you are looking at. This combined with a testable environment means you have a lot of tools to learn language in a more natural way. Every time you enter that menu, you will see all that text, helping reinforce it constantly. No RPG player ever forgets まほう. Keep in mind those goals though. If you are playing to learn, don’t get lazy and use genre as an excuse to not look up things you really should.

Don’t overplay.

Most games can be pretty demanding in new vocabulary. For English-language games, you might plan your playtime around actual time, but for language learning you should consider planning it around new vocab. 20-30 new words per session is quite a lot, but you can reach that amount very quickly. I ran into maybe 20 new words I had to check in less than an hour playing The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. Too much longer than this can be frustrating, exhausting, and ultimately inhibit learning. Hit your predetermined cap, take a break, review, and then come back another day.

As you progress you’ll find your sessions will get longer naturally. This ties in with your goals. If you don’t care about the story, then once you’ve learned menus, there will be little vocab to actually learn. It’s important to not overplay as you want this to remain a fun experience. Remember: it is your hobby! Hopefully now you’ve leveled up a little and can assign some skill points to Japanese!

Limit Break! Recommended Titles:

Animal Crossing New Leaf (『とびだせ どうぶつの森』3DS) Relaxing, low commitment, furigana and hundreds of common items with context make this excellent for learning basic Japanese. Aimed at young children, this is a great game for Japanese-language beginners, and most of the words you’ll learn will be useful in everyday life (unlike most of the other games).

Pokemon series (『ポケモン』various platforms) You know Pokemon already if you got this far. Aimed for younger audiences, this series uses much more kana, which can sometimes prove to its detriment for reading. But since many people already know what they are getting into, Pokemon will really let you focus on the important things, like knowing exactly how that pun came to be. If you want to keep it simple but a little more advanced, Dragon Quest is another unchanging constant in Japanese games.

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (『ゼルダの伝説 夢幻の砂時計』DS) Cheap, region free, and featuring the ability to touch kanji to display furigana make this Zelda a great one for learning kanji, offering hints only when you need them. Being for younger audiences as well means the game might be a little complex with its language, but should be manageable.

Tales series (『テイルズオブ』シリーズ, various platforms) If it’s a platform since the PS1, it has a Tales game on it. The series is a lot of fun, although clichéd both structurally and story-wise. However, a focus on voiced short character skits often involving fairly conversational (anime) Japanese, and the series habit of highlighting important points in a different colour helps you notice what is really important.

Atelier Totori (『トトリのアトリエ』PlayStation Vita) Atelier Totori is a low stress RPG about a girl who makes things. Lots of voice acting, combined with the clueless main character’s habit of repeating dialog in an often simpler manner helps. The series focuses on small skits rather than a grand complex story, keeping vocab from getting too obscure (although the crafting system does get difficult).

Visual Novels (genre) Most versions of Visual Novels, Japanese Adventure games, for PS3, PSP and PS Vita feature extensive voice acting for characters other than the player, usually with a backlog feature to go back and replay voice clips and check past conversations. This is recommended more for higher skill levels in Japanese, but games like Bakudan Handan, Clannad and Umineko can serve a great place as learning materials.


About the contributor: Rowan Carmichael is a second-year Saijo ALT. Check out his blog at loveprincesscarmichael.wordpress.com for more on gaming, Japan, and JET life in general.

About The Mikan: The Mikan is a blog by and for Ehime JETs. If you are interested in contributing, email Editor Anna Sheffer at asheff93@gmail.com.

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One response to “A Gamer’s Guide to Leveling up Your Japanese”

  1. OwenField Avatar

    Very interesting information
    Best Regards

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